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Literature as a Tool to Build Realities


Alain de Botton argues that great writers are like lenses through which we can see an infinite array of possibilities.

One of the main features of literature, and which was perceived since ancient times, is its capacity to transform the human spirit––to reach its deepest tissues and change it. In what sense? We could say, simply, for the better; but it’s not easy to use this word knowing everything it implies.

Does literature make people better? Aristotle found literary tragedy to be cathartic. He explained how the spectator feels in his own flesh the sufferings of the hero and, when the hero overcomes an obstacle, the spectator also feels a sort of renovation. In our age, scientists and literary theorists refer to this process as empathy.

Our cognitive abilities equip us in such a way that when we read it is as if we’re living the characters’ lives––For a moment we become someone else, a la Rimbaud, and this subtle trans-personalization can, in time, make us more compassionate, more sensitive to the feelings and experiences of others, and remind us of what so many have forgotten: that there are other ways of being and other ways of confronting the world.

Alain de Botton argues that great authors are people with “very sophisticated radars that pick up on the truly important things” in life. He explains:

The interesting thing is that, for me, that radar is not something we should simply passively accept while we read the book. It’s something we should learn from. We should shut the book and then say, “Okay, I’ve read Jane Austin or Proust or Shakespeare and now I’m going to see my mother or I’m going to have a chat with my aunt or I’m going to go and, you know, talk to some friends in a coffee shop, and rather than just doing it the normal way, I’m going to look at them and I’m going to ask myself that basic question, ‘how would Jane Austin see them? How would Proust see them? How would Shakespeare see them?’

This change in perspective is, as Botton says, “the power of great literature.” A way to see the world with our eyes and at the same time with the eyes of another; a way of “seeing things that we would usually miss.”

In summary, reading great literature is one way of understanding that the world is larger, more complex and richer than our habitual daily life would have us think. And maybe, as Leibniz argued, ours is the best of possible worlds, but other beautiful worlds exist too; worlds which we may choose to step into, even for a moment, within our daily lives. Literature modestly hints at the infinite universe around us.

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