What Is It about Literature? Can It Increase Livelihoods?

What makes us run to literature whenever we are upset? Blissful? Angry? Contemplative? What gives literature the ability to sooth, to turn our previously firmly-held beliefs upside down, and to help us understand the world through various lenses? Why has it permeated almost every aspect of our society, from slangs to how we eat food to how we perceive the world? Can we also make the argument that literature increases the livelihoods of disadvantaged youths or is it simply another Western imperialist tool?

One possible answer to all these questions lies in the universality of literature. Through literature, we can learn about the past, the present, and the future. We learn about the strict Puritan lifestyle of colonial America through Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. We are warned about the possible consequences of our modern society through Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. And we look forward to the futures described by futuristic writers such as H.G. Wells and Orson Card. Literature also expose us to other cultures and systems of living: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, Out of Africa by Karen Blixen, and numerous books by the prolific writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Whether intentional or not, these books among others have carved our (as Westerners) perceptions of how other people in this world live and believe. Though controversial, we can strongly argue that philosophical literature such as Aynd Rand’ Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged have changed our views on the system of the world and is playing a major role in contemporary politics (Paul Ryan’s fiscal views anyone?)

The influence of literature can also be seen through its prevalence in our everyday language. We know not to call a Black person “Uncle Tom” (from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin). Sisyphean (via Albert Camus) is how many describe the  battles against the American healthcare system and other entrenched institutions. Sometimes, we wish that we can Apparate (Harry Potter) to another place. Our friends are often as choosy as Goldlilocks (the Grimm brothers) when it comes to certain things.

Allusions to literature by titles are so commonplace that they are also featured in other literature works (great promotional method). Stanford literature professor, Elif Batuman, wrote a highly-acclaimed New York Times best seller book, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian books and People Who Read Them,  about her infatuous journey with books and how books, specifically Russian and Central Asian literature, changed her life. Bildungsromans are also filled with characters who turn to books for comfort and to explore the world. The 14-year-old protagonist in The Perks of A Wallpaper by Stephen Chbosky reads humongous literature works, such as Naked Lunch by William Boroughs, Rand’s Fountainhead, and Walden by Henry David Thoreau. The main character in The Outsiders reads Gone with the Wind and Robert Frost after being an accessory to murder.

Not only can literature offer us the skills of critical thinking, but it can also tell us that we are not alone in our emotions and views. It is a medium into which we can channel whatever we are feeling at the moment. Indeed, a University of Buffalo study shows that reading fiction makes the readers more able to be empathetic. Interestingly, literature is also one of the few mediums in which we can wallow our sadness. Typically, if one is feeling sad, one will listen to cheery music or music with a fast beat. But with literature, it is different. One can also read a sad book, e.g. one with character(s) who struggle with depression, an feel better afterwards. In short, literature is soothing for the soul.

Yet if literature is so useful, knowledgeable, and eye-opening, what does this say for people in developing countries where literature is expensive and often seen as frivolous? In my line of work where we prep low-income youths (who make up 40-70% of the entire population) for the job market, mentioning literature to them is laughable. “Reading literature is something rich people do. People who have too much money. Literature can’t get us jobs. Literature won’t make me hustle faster and better.”

I used to think of literature that way too. But now, I disagree. While it is certainly true that having read Out of Africa by Karen Blixen will not increase one’s income for the next week or month, reading literature changes the way we think in the long run. It teaches us a new system of critical thinking that permeates other aspects of our lives. In the cases of youths in slums, it offers them a new way of how to hustle better and faster. It gives them a new framework into the psychology of their “customers” and how they can market their “products” differently than other competitors, even if the product is simply sugar cane. Literature increases their livelihood success chances by giving them the tool to step into other people’s shoes and clarifies their understanding of the world around them.

Yet how effective is literature in doing so? Take the Odyssey Project on the Southside of Chicago, for example. Run by a coalition of world-class universities, such as the University of Chicago and Northwestern, the Odyssey Project offers free courses and college credits to Southsiders living in poverty, many of whom hold several jobs and then attend night classes. Taught by professors from partner universities, these students learn humanities and social studies, including political philosophy. In fact, the majority of the professors come from the classics and political philosophy departments. No holistic impact study has been done in this area but the existing (anecdotal) results have been positive so far. Many of the students have credited the critical thinking they learned in classes for their increasing success in the job market. They are moving up the ladder and are more likely to hold down their jobs for longer.

However, there is still a (jaded) part of me that cannot but help think that literature is another ruse to continue Western imperialism in developing markets. There are two main reasons for this thought: exclusivity of literature and its espoused Western mode of thinking. Firstly, does literature’s exclusivity further emphasize the West’s “superiority” or “exceptionalism”? If only the richer families have access and resources to buy it, what about the rest of the world who cannot afford books, much less ebooks and online pirated versions? To even get the latter two forms, one needs reliable access to computer and decent enough Internet to download such large files. Furthermore, oral storytelling, literature’s closest substitute, is free and a very strong custom for many cultures. Secondly, with the exception of China, India, and the Middle East, most developing countries lack a strong writing culture. Thus, most literature come from the West, especially Europe, meaning that the system of thinking is more Western.

But is this necessary a bad thing if we go through the line of thought that literature can increase livelihood? Most emerging markets are becoming more Western. After all, it is the Westerners who have sufficient money for investment and cushion to take risks. Is it such a bad thing that literature espouses Western thinking? Isn’t it just self-aligning with the demand of the market trend? Sure, anthropologically, the dominance of Western mode of thinking is a shame, but for the unemployed youths, it is not necessary a bad thing if it increases their chances of getting jobs….right?

Literature is a bandaid to our emotion well-beings, but can it do more? Can it increase the livelihoods of underprivileged individuals? I am leaning towards yes, but research in this area is scarce (or rather non-existent). I’m looking forward to seeing this in my own job at g.Maarifa. Until then, I am holding optimistic while still managing my expectation.

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