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It has been said that 'literature holds a mirror up to life' (Dr. Samuel Johnson). It is true in the sense that we can see something of ourselves in the characters in books. We can be entertained and educated by literature whether it is a story, a poem or a play. We can like a character or despise a character and enjoy the experience.
We read a description and picture it in our mind's eye by recalling our own knowledge and experience of life. When what we read extends beyond our experience, we let our imagination run free under the guidance of the writer's perceptions.
One of my favourite quotes about literature comes from C. S. Lewis, who said:
Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.
This points towards the answer to your question. Good literature, through the way that it exposes us to an endless host of different worlds and contexts, allows us to imagine what those worlds and contexts are like, and through the act of the imagination, allows us to inhabit those worlds. As C. S. Lewis says, literature does not "simply describe" reality, but it "adds" to it. Good literature thus broadens us to worlds that are not our own through our ability to read about such worlds and to inhabit them through an act of the imagination. Because of this, good literature is not just about escapism, but about living life more fully and deepening our understanding of the condition of being human.
I always describe reading a book as making the movie happen in your head. It is as if instead of someone else directing and acting and staging what colors or costumes or setting is displayed, the reader gets to do all of that himself. This is certainly a skill, but it is a very human trait that we are all capable of... it's called exercising our imaginations. In our culture today, so many moving visual images do that for us. In literature, we have one of the last opportunities to go to other places without being told what to think. We actually author with an author every time we read.
It allows us to hear, feel, see, and experience what life is like for people in other times, worlds, and circumstances. Only by "walking a mile in someone else's mocassins" can we really understand what it is like to be them.
Especially for someone who has never traveled beyond their state or county, good literature can be a passport to worlds that they would never be able to see in their natural lives.
Good literature takes the reader to times, places, and/or circumstances that are unique or unusual, but keeps the big ideas of the work relevant to the reader -- thus creating important themes in a work. For example, Shakespeare wrote Hamlet and he transports us to a corrupt court with a murderer for king and a ghost who wants vengeance. This is not something any of us will ever endure, but we will all face the essential question that Hamlet does: "To be or not to be" -- in other words, to act or not act in the face of personal crisis. That is the power of literature to broaden our experiences without ever leaving our chair.
I'm with #2 on this one. Literature is first a mirror to our own lives and selves; as we see the flaws and failures in others, we also see them in ourselves. Aside from that element of self-examination, literature reflects the times and places of history. We have the sensation of living in a different time and place without ever getting up from our chairs.
Literature does not have the same boundaries that our world does. It can explore any situation, any emotion, create characters and change the rules of everything, including physics. This is why literature helps us move into other worlds beyond our own, because we are used to thinking within the rules that govern our lives, and literature does not have to abide by them.
I must agree with the other posters. For me, literature provides a place where I can find sympathy, information, emotion, excitement...well, everything.It gives me escape, allows me to ground myself, and sometimes just read something to laugh out loud. When reading, you can become someone else or find yourself.
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