If we do not read the literature of our own culture and that of the world, we impoverish ourselves intellectually, spiritually, and lose opportunities to connect with others across time and geographic separation. The literature of all kinds is eminently worth the investment of time, for its power to display different ways of expressing ideas. We can also read literature for the lessons it teaches.
Immersion in research is also a great source of insight into other people’s lives. A perfect example of both the results of reading literature and the power of reading poetry is found in Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech now commonly known as “I Have A Dream.”
It is sadly ironic that one of the audiences to which he directed his words has subsequently chosen to identify reading, especially of literature, and especially of the novel that has enriched the western world, with oppression. This is because the speech itself shows in nearly every line the evidence of a man who was himself a reader.
The phrasing, the imagery, the vocabulary, all point to someone comfortably familiar with the rhythms of the Bible, at the very least. Dr. King himself shows, in his comfortable and effective use of words, a lifetime of reading and appreciation of literature.
For example, he evokes the reduplicative pattern of the Psalmist in describing a future time when “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” The two words, “righteousness” and ”justice,” are very close in meaning. “Waters” and a “mighty stream” are also very close in meaning. In entirely objective terms, this is repetitive.
However, for readers familiar with the patterns of Judeo-Christian scriptures, it adds power. Without reading great literature like the Bible, neither King nor his audience would appreciate this technique for emphasis, simply by repetition with minor variation, of a simile or metaphoric phrase.
Literature teaches us lessons, sometimes directly and explicitly, and sometimes implicitly and indirectly. King’s speech offers examples of both. For his African-American listeners, he conveyed a lesson about persistence in the non-violent pursuit of their rights, exemplified in his admonishment against ” physical violence.”
For those listeners who were resisting this struggle, he issued a lesson about the futility of blocking “the determination of the Negro.” Without reading this literature, his two-fold message of non-violence and persistence might be blurred in memory the memory of those who come after.
Literature can also open up new insights into people and places that we might otherwise never know. In his speech, King alludes to events and experiences, such as to “narrow cells,” and “police brutality,” through which few, if any white people would have ever lived, and which we might forget.
This sort of window into the lives of others from the past and far away is the great joy of literature. Thus, to read literature is to see new ways of using language effectively, to draw lessons for our own lives, and to see into the lives of others. Without literature, we may be trapped in present time and a single mode of thinking. Literature is a precious gift, indeed.
King, M. L. (1963, August 28). I Have a Dream. Retrieved from web.