Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of literature, and art in general. Because it feels like that in modern life, humanities have lost the regard they used to have in society – instead, things like science are what people view as important, and studying literature is sort of a jokey, waste-of-time degree.
A while ago in class my tutor asked us all to bring in a book that we thought had changed the world. A wide array of books appeared, from To Kill a Mockingbird to A Series of Unfortunate Events. Being creative writing, and for some of us, English Lit students, it was a topic most of us felt very enthusiastic about, and we all got into the discussion feeling pretty excited. Harry Potter changed the world because of how it inspired millions of children and taught them how to love reading again. Lord of the Rings opened a whole world of escapism for us. To Kill a Mockingbird – well, did it even need to be said how To Kill a Mockingbird changed the world?
But it turned out that actually yes, it did need to be said. Because that evening, filled with the buzz of how we as readers, and hopefully as writers, could one day make a difference in the world, I told my dad about the class. I asked him what books he thought changed the world. And he hesitated. And then he said, “Can books really change anything?”
Gobsmacked, I replied, “Of course!”
Inwardly I was nervous. Terrified he’d voice the thought I was thinking and suddenly invalidate the degree I’d already spent a year and a half working towards.
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” I said, arms folded, sure of my win.
And then I was stuck. Nothing came to mind. “Well…it changed attitudes, ya know?”
“I don’t really think it did anything more than Gandhi or Martin Luther King did.”
By the end of the conversation I was a bit of a stuttering mess. I knew To Kill a Mockingbird had changed the world. I just knew it – but I couldn’t verbalise why.
The conversation ended. He probably didn’t think about it again. But I did.
Because, quite frankly, saying something changes the entire world is a pretty bold claim to make. To change the world, does a book need to have been read by every human being? Or just a handful? Or even just one?
On a quick google search of books that changed the world, I found Shakespeare to be one of the go to authors on the subject. Shakespeare currently is read and watched by high school students and people who study literature or theatre. A few other people might read it because they enjoy it, but the vast majority have very little to do with it.
Iliad and the Odysey are also on the list. Honestly though, has anyone with an average schedule ever read them? I’m not sure I know anyone who’s even read the first page! How can a book have changed the world if nobody’s read it?
Writing this though, the answer has come to me. Shakespeare – well, half of his language was made up, yet we still use it today. Homer shaped the very society and civilisation we live in. Dickens re-established the love for Christmas traditions.
Honestly though, I could be exaggerating the importance of their impact. As a student of creative writing and English literature, I might just be searching for some sort of validation. My degree is often dubbed as a “useless degree”, with quips being made about my dreams and job prospects too regularly: “Don’t do English, you’ll end up working in McDonalds.”, “Hey, part timer.”, “So what do you do…just read books all day? I wish my degree was that easy.”, “So like…what are you actually going to do when you finish? Teaching?”
These comments, if said enough, get to you. Because we work just as hard as anyone else, and the job prospects are terrifying, because the world doesn’t value literature the way it used to. Science is now the be all and end all. Doing a degree in something like creative writing or drama is only good if you hit the big time.
But my thinking is that words have power. Yes, we need science and we need maths and we need vocational subjects. But we also need the analytic thinking literature gives us – it’s a way of looking differently at a society where everything isn’t actually as straight forward as we can be led to believe.
And while books might not have a direct change, they definitely have a direct influence on people. I started writing stories myself because of books like Harry Potter, the Famous Five, the Lord of the Rings. The Hunger Games made me think about the political system and where it’s at.
If you don’t believe that fiction can make a massive change, then you might have missed the whole Twilight phase – I didn’t. I was right in the midst of it, as embarrassed as I am to admit it. And it did change things for me – it made me more interested in romance. For goodness sake, I even considered leaving my window open in case Edward Cullen decided to show up. Although I’m not sure what I actually would have done if he had (screamed and locked it, most likely), I was directly influenced by a book.
Fiction can reflect things in society. 1984, for example, influenced ideas and thoughts, but for some people hits a bit too close to home. Books reveal something in society that is ignored by the general population, or perhaps we are just unaware of it.
So maybe books don’t directly change the world. But they change opinion, they raise awareness – and that is an incredible powerful tool. Imagine a young Martin Luther King with To Kill a Mockingbirdin his hands. Or, on the flip side, imagine a future murderer with Game of Thrones in his hands. Imagine the ideas that would fly through their heads when reading it. Ideas that originated, or were validated because of this book. So maybe books don’t change the world on their own – but they can change one person’s world, who in turn changes the whole world. And that’s an incredibly powerful tool.
So books can change the world, in a way. Literature has massive value, and studying literature also has value. Maybe it’s not vocational, but creative writing and books have power, and it’s hard to ignore.
To conclude, please try and stop insulting my degree because it’s mean and I’ll probably end up making you a character in a short story at some point.