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Why Read or Write Literature?

This chapter of THE QUESTION focuses on the literary arts. How does literature enhance the quality of our lives? Does reading a short story, novel, poem, creative essay, or play make us more authentic, interesting, compassionate, perceptive, and whole? Does writing creatively make life more meaningful? According to Goethe, "The decline of literature indicates the decline of a nation." What makes the reading and writing of literature essential to the health of a civilization?  What do YOU think?  Have any literary works, broadly construed, made an impact on the way you think, understand, feel, or behave?  Please help build community and share ideas in the blog.

Members of the WVU English Department will get the conversation started. In addition, I am including links to Karen Swallow Prior's Atlantic magazine essay, "How Reading Literature Makes Us More Human" and Annie Murphy Paul's Time essay, "Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer" to stir up this discussion. A short reading list to further guide the discussion, provided by faculty members in the WVU English Department, is also included.

 "We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers." -- Carl Sagan

Please share your own insights in the blog!  

I hope you are enjoying THE QUESTION. You can email comments and suggestions about this project to me at:

  • Adam Komisaruk          
    Adam Komisaruk, Ph.D., WVU English Department

    When I was a teenager, I once spent a summer afternoon on Cape Cod with a cousin of mine, flying kites.  He showed me this device, a little box with wheels and retractable wings that you would attach to the string while the kite was airborne.  When the wind caught in the wings, the device would sail up to the top of the string.  I was impressed but asked, “So…what’s the purpose of it?”  My cousin replied, “What’s the purpose of it?  What’s the purpose of a kite?”  I look at questions like “Why read and write literature?” in much the same way:  the “Why” is a distraction from the more interesting “What” and “How.”

    Read the Essay

  • Lisa Weihman

    Lisa Weihman, Ph.D., WVU English Department

    I read literature because I’m nosy and I’m greedy. I want to know all the things, to be in all the places, to meet all the people. I also have a greedy thirst for beautiful things, and literary language is beautiful. Beyond these selfish pleasures, though, is my belief that literature will save the world. Literature teaches empathy. Literature gives us the emotional insight into one another’s suffering that helps us to end the causes of that suffering.

    Read the Essay 

  • ReadMore

    Annie Murphy Paul
    "Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer"  Time (June 3, 2013)

    Read Essay

    Karen Swallow Prior
    "How Reading Literature Makes Us More Human" The Atlantic (June 21, 2013)

    Read Essay

    WVU English Department Reading List