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When Omar Khayyam had written: “I desire a little ruby wine and a book of verses, just enough to keep me alive, and half a loaf is needful” in the eleventh century, he was pretty convinced that reading [books] was one of the most important aspects in a person’s happiness. Way before his time, we discovered that we wanted to listen, watch and read. We watched plays written by the ancient bards and playwrights.
After all these years, the appeal of books and reading them has remained the same. A good work of fiction or a thought-provoking poem is capable of leaving a lifetime impact on a person’s mind. It won’t be an overstatement to say that Khayyam left some perfect lines for book lovers to apply to their thoughts on literature.
But why does literature matter in our lives?
I’ve been raising this question to a few friends. One said that literature matters because it’s related to life. However, another said: “Literature matters, so does mud-wrestling.”
He argued that everything that’s related to life, matters. Yet another friend, a teacher of literature, came up, saying that it makes you ask questions and feel alive to the world. Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ can certainly make you ask hundreds of questions.
EM Foster’s ‘A Passage to India’ ends with a million dollar question: whether Dr. Aziz was responsible for Mrs Moore’s psychological changes.
This friend of mine, however, opposed the popular notion that literature makes you a good human being.
Whether literature makes you a good human being may be a subject of debate, but one cannot deny the fact that it gives humans the strength to go on when the chips are down. Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ is perhaps the best example of human existence. Don’t you feel an unfathomable strength rising inside you when you read or recite Kazi Nazrul Islam’s ‘Bidrohi’?
Literature could be important for a nation in terms of national identity; it provides a nation a certain character which, in the end, would leave a universal appeal in the context of any nation in the world. Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’, for example, is a great “Russian” novel, but the plot can be anybody’s story. Tolstoy has successfully given Russia a character that would be remembered by his readers.
Sometimes, works of literature tell a nation’s history in such a way that readers prefer novels over history books. Read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’. It’s the Latin American “boom” in literature. You’ll find elements of romance and fantasy and, on top of these, a deep insight into Latin American history. Haven’t Tagore’s works given Bengali literature a certain place across the world? No one has ever disputed this fact.
‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, ‘North and South Trilogy’ and ‘Roots’ – all these famous novels leave intense imprints on our minds about those times and places. And the imprints remain till the day we leave this world. With ‘Leaves of Grass’, Walt Whitman could reach out to common Americans with an epic. He has been highly successful in singing of America’s democratic spirit.
Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’ is a novel of life in ancient Rome and of the catastrophic volcanic eruption that destroyed the city of Pompeii, AD 79. The Rome of a century earlier is captured in Thornton Wilder’s ‘The Ides of March’, which centres around the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC.
Britain was then a far outpost of the Roman Empire, a half-savage land that is used by Anya Seton in ‘The Mistletoe and the Sword’.
While literature can paint a country with a certain identity and give Nature a certain entity, it can also create characters – human characters. Writers observe people and their lives around us and capture them with their imaginative powers.
When I read or watch Shakespeare’s plays, I feel the characters he created are still present around me, talking to me.
Having said that, I feel that literature sometimes adds fire to the revolution or a social change. Thomas Paine wrote pieces such as ‘The Rights of Man’, ‘Letter to George Washington and The Age of Reason’, which inspired democratic governments, freedom of thought, and religion. Paine’s ‘The American Crisis’ inspired American troops to continue their battle for independence from England.
Songs broadcast by Shwadhin Bangla Betar Kendro inspired Bangladesh’s freedom fighters in 1971.
“Mothers are hardly ever pitied,” wrote Maxim Gorky in his landmark novel ‘Mother’ around a hundred years ago. The novel is about the pre-revolution proletariat of Russia and focuses on the role women played in the struggle of the Russian working class on the eve of the revolution in 1905.
Literature matters because, to me, it’s magic. And the people who create literature must have been going through a magical state of mind. Nazrul couldn’t have written ‘Bidrohi’ if he wasn’t possessed. For Nazrul, to my mind, it wasn’t just a “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions” like the English Romantics. I feel, therefore, that we will have to share a slice of that magic from poets and writers like him in order to understand why literature matters.

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