By Shelby Swogger

Literature has radically reordered the world many times over. From its conception in ancient days, it was revolutionary as a remarkable step in human accomplishment, a rendering of a rich cultural landscape, and a fascinating concept actualized at the convergence of many great monuments in human history. At the same time, the creation of literature was processual, an evolutionary consummation of potentials in long-developing neural structures. Therefore, an important interpretation of the role of literature comes not only from a current understanding of neurophysiology — knowing that words with their evocative nature can affect important change within the brain itself — but from a reflection on how it has been used, and continues to be used, by humans as a tool. Words create vehicles of thought by which we communicate experience, and literary expression uses these vehicles to affect change in that experience. Therefore, by comprehending the literatures of a culture we can grow to further understand the culture itself.

Literature may be regarded as a historical monument: a period of time is honored and preserved by its literature. Works of literature are greatly valuable during their own time, both as critically observational, descriptive records of real circumstances and as personal reflections in relation to these circumstances. This amounts to a written chronicle throughout time of the intertwining emotional, intellectual and sociopolitical experiences of individuals and societies within localized portions of the world. This narrative then reaches down vertically into the lives of future readers, giving insight and inspiration. It is true that the magnitude of a work’s intrinsic value is often measured more by its impact on subsequent generations than by its reception during its own time. And like any historical remnant, literature has deep cultural significance as it documents a way of thought being passed traditionally downward through many epochs. Literature is an artifact, an inheritance and a lineage.  

Yet human experience is not uniform and so one can often uncover manifold contrasts and conflicts among the literatures of a single society. There is a high degree of experiential variety demonstrated in the collective works of a large population, reflecting the continual flux of thought and action. All the possibilities and proclivities of human beings can be unmasked through literature — it is the the archive of imagination.

Additionally, literature is a dynamic, sometimes volatile form of expression. In being so it can incite powerful emotions — rage, sorrow, empathy, joy — and move individuals to acts of great violence or of great kindness. The product of literature is in various turns turbulent and restorative, carrying minds and souls through their confrontations with change and imbalance. The motivations of a culture’s literature and its effects on those who claim it as their own are important not only as relics but also to understand the mindsets and tendencies of peoples and individuals, as well as the making of a cultural identity.

Literature is also a deeply personal kind of art. As such, it weaves together the threads of a story, introspectively, keeping all the parts interconnected yet individuated in the retelling. Done skillfully this becomes a masterpiece that transcends time, relations, and the specific circumstances of its own creation. Literature is therefore the authorship and ownership of all people.

Perhaps most importantly, then, is that our words connect us. With its inherent binding qualities, literature spans throughout time and space, reaching broadly across geographic regions to dramatically affect seemingly insignificant people in unexpected places. Reviewing the literatures of the world, keeping these notes in perspective, evidences that the deeply entrenched natures of the cultures surrounding us, often perceived to be monolithic, inaccessible, unquestionably or inevitably segregated, are really fluid and interrelated. With this in mind, it is important that we develop an approach to the intricacy of writing that we find within and among cultural groupings — one that is respectful, humble, and absolutely open to the infinite possibilities afforded by world literatures.

By advocating and working to instill an uncensored, tolerant and intentional consideration of literatures we can develop a global system of thought and interaction that is in some measure both heterogeneous and holistic. Cultivating not only knowledge of, but also a personal appreciation for and widespread access to the literatures of all nations and cultures, while understanding the deeply rooted origins of each one’s written tradition, is an important step in improving cultural awareness and communication. By learning from literature the aspects of an unfamiliar set of lives, a complex web of viewpoints, it is possible to grow an organic respect for other peoples, individuals, and ideas. We, at the same time, are personally affected and influenced by the outpourings of all that we learn, though we do not necessarily assimilate them. In this way isolationism decreases, but not at the expense of cultural integrity.

Diversity in the reading of literature increases the information available to us, and in doing so it broadens psychological possibilities and clears pathways of thought. This results in the spread of a powerful bricolage of ideas. Learning as much as we can about many things, especially things previously foreign to us, stimulates us to continue becoming, and to continue creating. Likewise, what we create contributes to the growth of others. We all participate in the expansion of human knowledge.

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