‘The reader lives a thousand lives, the man who does not read lives only one,’ penned George R. R. Martin, one of today’s best-known literary giants. As a self-proclaimed bibliophile, I could not agree more. I spent my childhood folded between the pages of books. I lived the lives of fictional characters, and my days were their histories, fantasies, and footnotes. Fast forward to the present day – with the quality of written work increasingly eroded by the digital landscape, steady falls in reading rates, and ‘literature’ seen as something for the austere elites and not the masses, is there much value in literature today? In my opinion, literature is worth its weight in gold. Its coinage may be foreign to some, but the value neither diminishes nor depreciates over time. Classics that have stood the test of time remain as relevant as they were in their day. In an increasingly polarised and complex world, modern literature is our call to action. Finally as boundaries shift and blur, and we meld into a homogenous sea of globalised wanderers, literature can keep us grounded and rooted in a national identity. Therefore, I cannot agree that there is little value in literature today.
First, the stories and values imparted in works widely considered literary canon are still applicable to our modern lives. Agatha Christie’s novels and William Shakespeare’s plays – outsold only by the Bible – remain bestsellers to this day, because their tales of man, morality and meaning are still relevant to us. They teach us values that shape our lives, and remind us that our worth lies not in our strengths, but in how we overcome our weaknesses. In China, works like the Trimetrical and Confucian classics still remain the cornerstone of basic education. Proper moral upbringing is as important as literacy or academic fundamentals. The study of literary works as a means for moral education is a long-established practice, and one that looks like it will continue into the future. Although our circumstances are wildly different from those of our ancestors, the core issues and dilemmas we face are the same as we explore and navigate the human condition. Thus, literature has the power to imbue us with values and morals that have survived to this day. The immense educational value of literature means that to claim it has little value today is simply untrue. Literature can teach us the same lessons it taught our ancestors, and their ancestors before them. As fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson put it, ‘All stories have been told before. We tell them to ourselves, as did all men who ever were. And all men who ever were will be. The only things new are the names.’
However, it cannot be denied that as publishing cheapens, almost anyone – with some effort – can write a book. There has been a noticeable decline in the quality of written work churned out by profit-chasing publishers in recent decades. Gone are the days of hand-cramping scribing and Gutenberg’s printing press. Now anyone – yes, even the likes of Stephanie Meyers, Dan Brown, and Sarah Maas – can be a writer. Books rife with clumsy language, mangled plot and shallow characters line the shelves. Worse still, the reading and writing taught at schools is being eroded by proliferation of internet slang, and fewer and fewer children are reading. A 2015 survey showed that 57% of Singaporean youths had not read a book in the past year. With readers and writers both contributing towards the decline of literature, detractors bemoan the loss of literature and shake their heads at the thought of today’s literature having any value. The only way out, they claim, is to turn the page and start afresh from page one.
Yet all is not lost. Although the quality of contemporary literature may have declined, what we really need to do is focus our attention on the few ‘good apples’ in the barrel. In today’s increasingly complex and polarised world, strong contemporary literature stands out from the mediocre mass and calls for action. There are still quality novels out there. They bring social issues into the spotlight and have causes to champion. Angie Thomas’ ‘The Hate U Give’ sheds light on Black Lives Matter. Roy Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’ questions the notion of censorship and withholding knowledge. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s ‘The Refugees’ gives a glimpse of displaced people rebuilding their lives. Literature helps us view the world through different lenses in order to better understand others’ perspectives, and examine their place in the world. With radical and extreme ideologies on the rise, there has never been a more pressing time for us to discuss important social justice issues, and literature is the perfect medium. Thus, there is much value in literature today, because quality contemporary novels are platforms to discuss important issues and for calls to action.
Finally, in today’s global village where national boundaries are porous and fast-fading, literature can add much cultural value. Storytelling is a time capsule that holds cultural identity in stasis, keeping a nation’s sense of self alive through the generations. We are not aimless wanderers having no places to call home, we know our roots – and we return to them eventually. Singapore was a nation thrust into independence, and viewed as a barren cultural desert initially. However, when the local literature scene began blossoming with names like Catherine Lim, Cyril Wong, Robert Yeo, and Alfian Sa’at appearing in print, Singaporeans had an emboldened sense of identity, with something to officially call their own. Local literature book stores like Epigram Books and BooksActually remain a thriving trade and remain in business to this day. Although the value of having a richer cultural identity is hard to quantify, there is no doubt that literature helps us remain rooted to where we come from, even as the world grows more hyperconnected. Hence, there is much value in literature today, as it infuses our societies with colour and culture.
So, what next? Humans once progressed from writing on tablets to writing on paper; now it seems the reverse is true. With the digital era already upon us, literature has not stood still while time marched on. Electronic books – an oxymoron? – are an option for those with too little time. Now, thousands of unpaid writers – amateurs and professionals alike – are writing and sharing their written work online. What about audiobooks and podcasts?
Whatever the future may bring, one thing is certain: literature has much value today, and it is likely to have as much value tomorrow. Literature imparts timeless values, mobilises people to reshape society, and reminds us of where we came from. Although no longer ‘the type of kid who fantasises about being trapped in a library overnight’ (to borrow a phrase from Trenton Lee Stewart), I still believe that literature has immense value today. After all, why live one life when you could experience thousands?
Soon Minh (18-I3)