Monthly Archives: September 2015

Why Does Literature Matter?

This past Saturday, my family and I attended the 15th National Book Festival. We arrived  in downtown D.C. at 9:30 a.m., and on our short walk from the parking garage to the convention center we walked right by Al Roker and a cameraman. I told Al he looked sharp, and he said thanks. I knew I was in for a good day.

There were a lot of great, personal moments, but I want to highlight those that seemed of particular importance to share with educators. In this post, I’ll focus on the session entitled, “Why Literature Matters.” No surprise that this was one of the most popular sessions at the festival. They might as well have called it, “Choir, Hear Us Preach.” I say that lovingly, because I was one of the worshipers waiting in line to enter 20 minutes before they opened the doors. I was especially excited to see Azar Nafisi, whose book Reading Lolita in Tehran riveted me years ago. The other panelists, poet Jane Hirshfield and PBS NewsHour anchor Jeffrey Brown (also a poet), created a trifecta of perspectives all different and yet all adoring of literature.

Here are my favorite words of wisdom:

Mr. Brown:

“Literature is what bridges the private and the public.”

“When I travel, I read the poetry of the place.”

Ms. Nafisi:

“Every time before I write, I read poetry. It clears my eyes.”

“Can we have a democratic society without a democratic imagination?”

“Reality is fickle. You need a portable world you can take with you where ever you go.”

“The best safeguard of memory is literature and art and music. It makes us withstand the cruelty of man and the cruelty of time.”

“In the West, what is dangerous is our sleeping consciousness and atrophy of feeling.” [Referring to words of Saul Bellow]

“Science and literature are both based on curiosity.”

“James Baldwin said, ‘Writers are here to disturb the peace.’ American fiction went against complacency beginning with Huck Finn.”

“I’m not writing to console, I’m writing to investigate. Writing and reading are about investigation.”

Ms. Hirshfield:

“We need literature to serve as usher of the unfathomable into our lives.”

“Literature is an augmentation to the factual news because it allows us to respond in a subtler way.”

“Literature is an expansion of the possible.”

“Literature is the discovery of what’s never been thought, felt, said, seen before.”

“It is by our empathy and compassion that we understand our fates are shared.”

“Literature is like a perfume bottle that can be unstoppered over and over again.”


I swear these incredible words all occurred during the same hour-long session. While waiting for the next session to begin, I tweeted out a few of the quotes.  Fast forward about 10 hours, and I’m riding home on the Metro, utterly exhausted but entirely uplifted. My phone pings, and I look down. Ms. Nafisi has tweeted back, “boy did I have fun! A lovely time @nationalbook with Jeff Brown and Jane Hirshfield.”

I’m not above admitting I emitted a squeal of delight. There I was, reading Nafisi in D.C.

Why does literature matter? Because it connects us to ourselves and others, regardless of time or space, gender or race, class or place, in a thousand unknowable ways.

[button link="" style="info" color="silver" bg_color="#999499" window="yes"]PBS Interview with Azar Nafisi and Jane Hirshfield[/button]

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