Literature, the novel especially, had a much more central place in the cultural life of modern civilization fifty years ago than it does today. Literary criticism is replete with references to the “death of the novel” and the almost complete eclipse of poetry from the average American’s life. Literary enthusiasts and the bookish elite have a become a counter-culture to the mainstream and the loss to the “average” person’s life can be felt in that deep, spiritual hole in the center of their being.
When is the last time a major literary novel captured the popular imagination or the name of an author of a truly artful work of fiction was on the lips of the majority of Americans? How many among us could name the Poet Laureate of the United States? How many Americans, outside of school, even read poetry for pleasure and enlightenment?
Those that do read literature understand its power. Within it is the power of a deep, soulful connection to the existential reality of our existence. Literature provides us with something that cannot often be found in the workaholic maelstrom of daily life; a human connection to the deepest parts of ourselves. The words chronicled by such writers say things about all of us and to all of us. They speak to generations because they are speaking truths about the nature of human life.
Perhaps instead of peddling religion door to door, the new missionaries in American life should peddle literature —the great novels, short stories and poems of today and yesterday—from apartment to apartment, house to house, all over the land. Perhaps there should be armies of telemarketing librarians and book lovers calling people at dinner time to ask if they’ve ever read Kay Ryan’s poems—and even reading poems to them. Perhaps the whole of the world should be invited to all the libraries that exist and their new religion should be that of the sharing of the human experience, that of literature. Perhaps the President should open the State of the Union Address with some verse.
Or perhaps, just perhaps, it is okay for these great works and great artists to be found one by one by each individual, dog-eared copies of old favorites handed to friends, bent, used and stained, complete with marginalia, people dusting off shelves in used book stores or sharing lines from a new, old poem they have discovered with a friend.
The relationship between a book and a reader can be very intimate. The bond can be seemingly eternal. For literary enthusiasts it is easy to take this power for granted. Ultimately, though, it may be up to this vocal minority to take the pages of the great works and new literary magazines and use them above all else to save all the souls that have been lost or forgotten, to bring people back into the fullness of their human experience. They are the keepers of the flame that goes back to the fireside storytelling days of early humans, to the Homeric epics, to today. They are the keepers of the power and purpose of literature—power and purpose meant to be shared.
C.E. McAuley, Ph.D., lives and writes in California. He can be reached at email@example.com.