I am sometimes amused by the reference to literary texts as ‘story books’. This may indicate an underestimation of the serious role that works of literature play in the society.
Firstly, literary texts provide knowledge to the reader. Through exposure to the different characters, one gains a knowledge of oneself.
The individual, through observing portrayals of other humans, becomes aware of their own unique talents, abilities and interests. They are also able to discern the social and financial needs of the world they live in and determine how they can forge a mutually beneficial existence with their environments.
Secondly, reading works of literature exposes one to different cultures. Observations are made about how men and women relate across regional and racial divides. Readers and learners distinguish between beneficial and harmful cultures. A person could even become a better human by shedding a bad personal habit.
Thirdly, literature can be used to craft ‘civilizational states’. The term, more notable after its use by Prof Zhang Weiwei, refers to the combination and marshalling of vital environmental, economic, technological and social strategies to uplift a people’s way of life and affirm their dignity.
Science fiction has sparked and inspired the vision and imagination of many would be scientists. Space travel, habitation on foreign planets, use of science to invent cures for problematic diseases are all found within the pages of science fiction novels and short stories. Writers also caution on the potential dangers of AI. Katama Mkangi’s Walenisi provides an examination of how technology can be used to eliminate the factors that undermine human existence.
Many literary texts detail the histories of countries. The texts show how nations arrived at their current social and economic conditions. Histories of political dictatorships and coups, corruption, lowly educated citizens and slow uptake of technology are seen to prevent third world countries from making the great leap forward. A teacher of literature can point out these factors during reading.
It is not far-fetched to say that literature has led to great international understanding. Literary characters from Africa, Europe and the Far East all portray the human will to live and enjoy life despite the struggles and pains that dot existence. The struggles are often the same. ‘We are all one’, the beautiful human characters sing throughout the pages.
And the world can do with humour. Writers can find a way to make readers laugh and get entertained despite the serious topics they write on. The depressed Dostoevskian hero in Notes from Underground will teach you not to take life too seriously or it will break you. The overexploited and undercompensated characters in Tram 83 will advise you to make lemonade from lemons and the highly educated Bellovian character will reveal to you that even scholarship won’t help you understand and solve all the riddles of the world but gaining knowledge is still a way to ease suffering.
Writers use their psychological stress in a healthy way to produce something beautiful. Readers get distracted from their personal troubles and release stress through catharsis and the comic relief in literary texts.
Due to the importance of literature in developing critical thinking, a more truthful world is created. In a post-truth world, utterances or opinions may be said that cannot be supported by facts or statistics. These fallacies could be deliberately created to appease or demean certain social and political groups, sometimes for financial gain. The consequence may be that wrong measures are taken, based on misleading information and consequently, unfortunate circumstances persist.
The use of literary texts as a guidance and counselling tool is not new. Writers who write these books often have a wealth of life experience within them. Their worldly wisdom and formal schooling enable writers to pen books that can help readers avoid making harmful decisions and make smart choices.
Readers also learn healthy ways to overcome crises and build the mental strength needed to survive crises. Literature departments should not be reduced, they should be strengthened. Publishing houses should also offer better contracts to writers.
The Writer is a teacher. You can read his online poem: ‘You Can Leave Me Behind’.