The Power of Literature

3 October 2017

“A book is a loaded gun.”- Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

By Julia Murphy - For centuries, the importance of literature has been reiterated, reaffirmed, and revived. Most today have been raised with books in their home, were told fairytales before bedtime, and have studied influential classics in school. Perhaps, many remain unable to explain how the presence of the different literature that surrounded them influenced who they are today. However, it is safe to assume that the existence of these books has defined everyone to an extent.

The recognition of the power of literature is an innate aspect of our society. Intellectuals have, for centuries, emphasized the power of books to mold society, and have certainly turned to great literature to shape themselves. Many have expressed themselves through writing, with the intent of altering what they find unfit. Moreover, the efforts of totalitarian governments to limit the power of words written upon a page alludes to the idea that such literature could pose a threat to these regimes. In effect, during the Spanish civil war, and Franco’s regime, intellectuals and writers such as Federico Garcia Lorca, Antonio Machado and Miguel Hernandez were actively persecuted for expressing their ideas. The fear was that they would cause others to follow suit. Such examples are apparent around the world: from the Americas to Asia writers are recognized for the power their words may have, and, in some cases are celebrated and, in others, find themselves persecuted.

Although writing that directly criticizes society has been proven to be extremely powerful, the hidden messages in novels are not to be overlooked. As William Styron says, “You live several lives while reading,” that is to say, books offer a chance to look through others’ eyes, to see the world in a different light. This may alter people’s beliefs, and how they perceive what surrounds them. For example, dystopian classics such as 1984 by George Orwell, or Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, are fictional stories. However, the messages within the novels are powerful, cautionary, and applicable to the world around us. Others may hit closer to reality, such as The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa, which analyzes the intricacies of Latin American dictatorships. Although veiled as fiction, much of it is inspired by true events and, definitely, can modify the way these events are perceived. The famous classic The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald was almost revolutionary in its criticism of the American dream, although this criticism was hidden between the fictional stories of Jay Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan and Nick Carraway. It is these novels, among many others, that have inspired discussion, motivated change, and considerably impacted the way people perceive society.

It is Joyce and Austen, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, that help make sense of the world around us, that allow us to step into another’s shoes, travel to a different world, or see the darkest corners of our own. In a way, a book can become a person’s best friend, and can transform from a set of pages to an embodied world. Literature has, for centuries, been recognized as a powerful actor within society, and rightfully so. Today, with an overload of information and new media forms constantly appearing, the power of the book can often be overlooked. However, even today, the book has made us, and will continue to make us, who we are as a society, and as individuals. 

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