Writing in the Intercollegiate Review, Gary Olmstead answers the question, “Why Read Literature?”

There were times during college when writer’s block threatened me with failing grades or missed deadlines. Scrambling for inspiration, I’d pick up a book—perhaps something I was reading for Western Lit, or a book I’d perused during Christmas break—and suddenly an idea would jump out of the text. Anna Karenina offered the perfect foil for a philosophy paper, Joseph Conrad suggested a new connection with Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. For the student, literature offers new ways of seeing academic principles and ideas: it can often suggest ways to recast the drabness of data and argument into flesh and blood, plot and drama.

But literature doesn’t just inspire our intellect: it can also offer new insights into our emotional and spiritual lives. Dostoevsky’s characters offer heroic inspiration (and fearful admonition). John Steinbeck carries us through darkness and dread into the promise of redemption. Frodo Baggins’s self-sacrificial journey, Harry Potter’s dark premonitions of doom, Ender Wiggins’s battle with self and the other: all offer moments of hope, wonder, and inspiration.

Because our lives seem so boring and prosaic—devoid as they are of Voldemorts and Saurons—we need occasional inspiration. In fact, we need inspiration from Harry and Frodo because our lives so often lack tangible foes or life-and-death scenarios. Because we fail to comprehend our battles in the beige moments of existence, we need the fantastical and fearful to wake us up. Works of literature, by recasting our angels and demons, revive our energy and virtue. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “[Fairy tales] make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.”

Read the rest here.


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