The phrase "values of literature" refers to those qualities of poems, stories, novels, etc. that make them worthwhile to read. If we feel our time reading is well spent, we can say that a work has value for us. If reading the work was a complete waste, then we might say it has no value for us. And there is a spectrum between the two extremes. Of course, if you simply do not like reading, then you really have no say in the matter, right?
What is there to value?
A work of literature can be valuable in several ways. Open your mind:
Literature has . . .
if reading it . . .
is an enjoyable way to pass the time.
can change the way people live with and influence each other.
helps us contemplate the nature of beauty and human creativity.
sheds light on the place and time of the author of the work.
helps one understand the past and how the world has evolved.
explores human knowledge, how we know and what we know.
teaches a lesson that will inspire the reader to live a better life.
helps us asks questions related to the standards of a "good" life.
What value matters most?
It partly depends on what you are looking for and how you tend to interact with the world. And here is where things get interesting. . . . we do not all agree on what to look for or how we should interact with the world. How to read is a matter for debate.
Does any literature have no value?
Hard to say. There is certainly some that has no value for me. If I could somehow obtain evidence that no one who had ever read a particular work gained anything from it, I might be able to argue that the work was valueless. But then I would also have to prove that no one who might read it in the future would get anything from it either. And I cannot see beyond now.
Literature has entertainment value if reading it gives occasion to enjoy yourself. This type of value is inherently subjective because not everyone will enjoy the same kinds of stories, styles, or themes. Being entertained is important, but being bored does not give anyone license to reject a work outright. I can put the book down and not read it anymore, but I should be careful not to assume that my boredom is somehow a characteristic of the work I tried to read. Rather, I was bored, plain and simple. Someone else might not be. At the same time, if a work is awesome to me, exciting, intriguing, etc., I should not assume that my interest is somehow a characteristic of the work I enjoyed reading. Rather, I was interested, plain and simple. Someone else might not be.
Literature has political value if reading it gives occasion to change how a person thinks or acts. Politics is about the management and flow of power. And power, like electricity, flows from one end of a circuit to another to make things happen. Reading a work can jolt someone into action. It can reveal an injustice, outrage its readers, give voice to the oppressed, ridicule those who are corrupt, etc. The main idea here is to think about what the work of literature is trying to do. It has political value if it attempts to persuade people or the world to start acting and thinking in "this" way. We can see the political leanings of a work without necessarily being persuaded ourselves. But most of the time, we will like a work for its political leanings if we are in fact persuaded to align ourselves with the author.
Literature has artistic value if reading it gives occasion to contemplate the nature of beauty and human creativity. There are many works of literature that experiment with the limits of language and its expressive power. If I like how words can be manipulated to create beautiful works of art, then a work that tries to use words that way in a new and unique way will have artistic value for me. I would say that every work of literature that we read in this course has artistic value because they are all works that have remained important over the years for the way they extended the power of language in a new direction. If you don't like words, it will be difficult to see the artistic value of any poem or story. The value will still be there even if you don't see it, however.
Literature has cultural value if reading it gives occasion to think about the place and time of the author at the time the work was written. Authors might seems like supernatural beings or at least people who are way above us, transcending the world down here to live among the heavens with their artistic visions, but they are actually regular people like the rest of us. They care about what is happening in the world around them, and they have experiences in life that shape their attitudes toward various issues. If their work addresses the attitudes, customs, and values of their time (or another time), then the work has cultural value. The work becomes a window into a world that is unfamiliar, and we are encouraged to compare cultural differences.
Literature has historical value if reading it gives occasion to think about the past, how things changes overtime, and how the world has evolved into what it is today. Historical value sometimes overlaps with cultural value; if a work is really old, then it can give us insight into a culture so far back that we can also think about how that culture might be a foundation for our own. The cliché about history is true--the less we now about how things were, the more likely we are to relive them. Of course, some things might be worth reliving, and we might regret some of the history we have left behind, but other things we want to avoid repeating. Works of literature can help us learn about the past, process the past, and use the past to our advantage. Sometimes the historical value of a work is that it shows us what we have gained and what we have lost.
Literature has philosophical value if reading it gives occasion to explore the nature of human knowledge, how we know and what we can know. These questions are central to the production of art because any artist must interact with the world in order to represent it, whether lyrically in a poem or through storytelling in fiction; he must, to some extent, know the world. But it is hard to be certain about what we know or even whether we can know anything at all. Some writers explore philosophical issues pretty deeply because they are often a source of crisis that can create great drama and raise intriguing questions. If a work invites us to think about perception, making sense of our place in the world, or self-awareness, then we can say that it has philosophical value. In response to such works, we tend to look inward and wonder, "who am I?"
Literature has moral value if reading it gives occasion to learn a lesson. If a story or poem TEACHES us how to live, or attempts to teach us, then it has a moral dimension. Is the work still valuable if we do not like the lesson it teaches? Perhaps so. The best readers will see the moral value of a work even if the morals it endorses are somehow distasteful to them. Moral value is a dangerous value to measure. The history of censorship, for instance, is based on the idea that if a work teaches the "wrong" thing, it should not be read at all. This idea goes all the way back to Plato, one of the earliest philosophers to explore the moral dimension of stories and poetry. We have to be careful, I think, not to hold moral value as the most important one. If we reduce a story or poem to a moral lesson, or require that a story or poem BE a moral lesson that we can endorse, then we are USING literature to back up our own beliefs. To avoid this mistake, we must learn to appreciate works of literature for its various kinds of value. "To appreciate" means "to measure the value of something," and we need to try to find value in a work if we are inclined to reject it simply because we think it teaches the wrong lesson. Here is where ethical value comes into play.
Literature has ethical value if reading it gives occasion to think about ethical questions. If a story dramatizes conflicts and dilemmas, it is not necessarily teaching us how to live, but it encourages us to contemplate the codes that the characters live by. If a poem has a speaker who promotes a particular world view or seems conflicted about the world he lives in, the reader can try to look through the eyes of that speaker and see what he or she sees. We may not agree with a speaker's or character's morality, but seeing that morality in action can shed light on what it means or how it changes the world. If we reflect on a moral code, instead of simply rejecting it or embracing it, then we are thinking ethically, and literature that promotes such thinking is ethically valuable. Here are some important ethical questions: What is the good life? What is the excellent life? Where do the definitions of good and excellent come from? Why do different definitions come into conflict? On what basis do they conflict? Remember: works that raise questions do not always answer them. To measure the ethical value of a work of literature, we need to ask the following questions:
- Do the characters make choices in the work? What are those choices?
- Do the characters or speakers defend particular beliefs or points of view? What are they?
- What motivates those choices or beliefs or points of view in the work?
- Where does the confidence in that motivation come from in the work?
- Is there a crisis in that confidence in the work? Why?
- To what place do those choices or beliefs or points of view lead in the work?