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What is literature? What does it do?
It's a matter of opinion whether the large number of self-proclaimed literati over the centuries have done more good or injury to literature. Gushing praise, lyrical affectation and downright drivel could all be classed as major irritants, rather than major assets.
Literature is a unique art form. It shares with music to some extent the ability to be entirely expressive beyond its content. Literature encourages visualization, and promotes development of expression. Like any art form, it evolves.
Literacy does not mean simply the ability to read. It means the ability to understand what one is reading. It also rather optimistically implies the ability to develop ideas and concepts further based on what one reads.
Modern literature is merely the current state of human expression on these terms. Compared to the literature of the past, it's a pretty patchy collection of materials and ideas. Saturation level publication hasn't really done much for the exposure of new ideas to the public, and global education systems which could be described as monuments to illiteracy haven't helped a lot, either.
The role of literature and society is perhaps best illustrated by the history of English, European and American literature. Luther and Gutenberg weren't the only people who believed that literacy could change the world. From their times onward, a barrage of broadsheets, pamphlets and various forms of written text which underlined the social development of the following centuries followed.
In England, the development of literature staggered along in various forms despite major talents until the 19th century. Public accessibility produced the dramatic development of social mindsets and an unparalleled spreading of ideas and concepts into the mainstream of society. In Europe, literacy was the primary mechanism for the Enlightenment. Some of the greatest minds in history appeared at this time and set the stage for what we now consider to be "modern thought". In America, a nation born of new ideas, literacy functioned in many ways as much as a social mechanism as an art.
It is almost inconceivable at this time in history that barely over 100 years ago, most people were at best semi-literate. Universal education, such as it was, usually didn't extend much beyond roughly high school level, if that. If you've ever read Jack London's People of the Abyss, you'll appreciate that literacy wasn't exactly the major priority of the public of that time.
It was, however, the catalyst for social revolution. The spread of ideas, half baked as many of them were, created a sort of social vision. The ideas of decent wages, decent accommodation and freedom from the previous forms of servitude took hold, and after the First World War started to enforce change. Education had by this time also improved, and improved literacy was the main reason that the public was able to grasp and develop these ideas.
History being what it is, another common manifestation of literacy was also apparent. Ideas were manipulated, propaganda became common among democracies, fascist dictatorships and in the Communist paradigm. The ability to read, but not understand, can be seen as a liability in many ways.
Arguably literature's most effective role is as a forum for ideas. Literature involves extended logic, and extended logic can be assessed and properly scrutinized. (The fact that it usually isn't is more a reflection on humanity’s strange obsession with ideals as Easy Bake panaceas for everything.)
Literature has no limits. It's much more than the mere use of language. It's certainly far more than the idiot literalism imposed by the recent dumbing-down ethos of third-rate communications workshops and pitiful pseudo-intellectual pedagogues. The fact is that ideas aren't necessarily simple, and that working concepts must project themselves.
The most basic literary devices are more than just images and simplistic solids. No word is absolute. One of the fundamental concepts of modernism was to belatedly acknowledge the fact that words can be used as symbols, and have multiple natures. Literalism is actually a step backwards into a form of illiteracy which would ultimately make it impossible to read a phonebook correctly.
Literature uses language, and language is the product of mentality. Nobody's mentality is that simple. In ancient storytelling metaphor was used as a sort of case study methodology for allegory. If you've ever read Aesop, it's a bit hard to escape the idea that the stories weren't simply about highly articulate and very thoughtful animals. Shakespeare's "Winter of discontent" wasn't some sort of post dated weather report.
In Chinese literature, symbolism and literary knowledge is so important that it extends to the individual characters of the Chinese language. You simply couldn't hold a literalist conversation in Chinese. Even if you could, you'd be considered boring and illiterate.
Literature will always be a work in progress. The so-called veneration of books as if they were some sort of museum specimens is a long way wide of the mark. When conducted by people who obviously do not understand a word of those books, it's an atrocity. It's disrespectful to the whole history of humanity, as well as insulting the intellects of the present.
Despite the tendency of some writers to be omniscient, insular and in some cases, boorish beyond belief, and literati to be insufferable, smug and almost stupefyingly ignorant, literature will survive. Literature belongs to humanity, not to tedious little bastards, however self-infatuated.
That's what literature is about, and that's what it does. What you read is given to you for your interpretation. Literature belongs to readers. There is a point at which any writer must acknowledge that fact. Literature is a human right, and that right must be upheld.