22 November 2010

On Novels and Literature

If we walk into any franchise book shops nowadays, books may be distinguished into two broad categories: self-help and finance. The former tend to bear optimistic titles that supposedly help us to cope with our existence, hovering between "How To Boost Up Your Self-Esteem" and "How To Awaken The Giant Within Yourself". While the latter may offer descriptive details of what the financial reality might be like, it seeks to blend itself with our self-help obsession, offering a lucid account of the possibility of economic happiness, rendering realistic our dream of making a fortune from the stock market.

But it wasn't always like this. Much of our literary history has rested its glory on the genre of novels and literature. Classics ranging from Shakespeare's and Oscar Wilde's to Harry Potter and Twilight, it seems rather hard for us to neglect their importance to our wellbeing. But why would novels and literature start to lack their appeal? Do self-help and finance books help us make some serious improvement of the quality of life so we may legitimately ignore the lessons novels and literature have to offer?

If self-help and finance books are the guidance of how to live, it is perhaps because these genres supposedly aim to seduce us to get something practical out of them and help us improve our lives in a certain way. But as we contemplate pages of practical advice in our beds, sadness might have been returned, for not only they are filled with illusions of what life actually is, they also go on to paralyse our imagination of possible happiness. The drawback of self-help books lies in their attempt to explicitly temper our worries and anxieties with a sense of primordial optimism, while subjugating our accurate views on life, they tend to falsely describe the world as one full of opportunities rather than one that is inherently depressing.

If we are to find a way to console ourselves in the midst of economic hardships and political disgrace, yet self-help books are unable to recast an old truth or wisdom into passable communal sentences, then perhaps we may need to turn to novels and literature in order to remind ourselves of how we should live. One valuable lesson from novels and literature is that they tend to mirror our experience. Rather than making false additions to an already muddied picture of life, their stories are generally founded on our everyday experience, harbouring in us a sense of belonging. But what's so special about mirroring our experience?

If mirroring our experience is essential to helping us to cope with our existence, it is because it sensitises our awareness of what we all have experience with. It allows us to pay attention to the minutest details what we may easily neglect. Upon reading a romantic novel, while we all may have experience falling in love, it transforms itself into a prism and forces us to adapt its content to our experience, allowing us to take on a different perspective that we may be previously ignorant of. It stretches to an ability to describe our emotions and our psychological make-up far better that we do. It guides our mind to pick up certain signals that initially bypasses our consciousness, and from that, cultivating our emotional sensibility and generating an entirely new experience of what we are familiar with.

What's more is that it allows us to understand experience that is not our own. While most of us tend to work in offices as ordinary white collars, seldom we are detectives, murderers, spies, and the like. Novels and literature present before us professions we are unlikely to have experience with and tell us what the world is like from their perspectives. Hence the business of novelists is also to enlarge our sympathy. They engage us into an experience we are unfamiliar with and ward off our bias and prejudice that might have been arisen through our conceptions of these professions as outsiders. This is also precisely one of the most admirable values of democracy. The virtue of tolerance lies not in respecting the differences in ideas and opinions, but, rather, in trying to understand them, through discussions and debates. How easy novels and literature may prompt us to understand others.

The limits of the modern form of self-help and finance books stem from an incompetence to portray our lives accurately and offer relevant insights to improve our wellbeing. In our current moral confusions, novels and literature are crying out to resume their importance.


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