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Books: The Eulogy - Essay On Mario Vargas Llosa's "Why Literature" - With A Free Essay Review



In his essay “Why Literature?” Mario Vargas Llosa attempts to prove that reading is an essential need, and not something that we should do only when it is convenient. Unfortunately, it has become commonplace to think that reading is just another recreational activity. In general, there is a clear decline in the amount of people read. This lack of interest in reading is by no means just an American problem. A recent study in Spain reveals that nearly half of Spain’s population has never read a book!

This unfortunate phenomenon is especially true for men. The author proves this by bringing a number of examples where men ask him for autographs for their wives or daughters, but never for themselves. In fact, most of these men claim to be too busy to read. The trends show that when people “prioritize”, reading often lands on the bottom of their lists. The common perception is that women read more because they have more time. The author points out that, while he usually tries to avoid making distinctions based on gender alone, it is clear that woman read more than men. Moreover, the divide between male and female readers just keeps expanding.

Why is reading so important? Vargas Llosa offers a number of reasons. Firstly, besides for being tremendously enjoyable, literature is essential to maintaining peace amongst people. Secondly, it enhances our ability to express ourselves. Finally, reading is a vital component of the critical mind. Without it we would grow complacent in even the most unjust situations; without it we would accept fallacies as truths.

Vargas Llosa envisions a world with very little or no literature; it is a scary looking place. He opines that the written word is humanity’s only true equalizer. Without literature, humanity will become divided. He points out that all other forms of artistic expression have become too specialized, and therefore have become divisive. “Specialization leads to…the division of human beings into ghettos of technicians and specialists.” Reading, however, helps us remember that we are all of common origin, and that we all have common goals. As Vargas Llosa writes “Literature has been, and will continue to be, as long as it exists, one of the common denominators of the human experience.”

What makes literature such a great equalizer? Not only does literature provide us with a common discourse with people of other cultures, but it also connects us to all of humanity throughout the generations. In addition, unlike other sciences, literature is not meant to satisfy a specific need. Rather, literature is intended to make every aspect of our lives better.

The author also points out that, without reading, we would be a far less eloquent society. No other medium has proven itself able to convey the nuances of our ideas. Llosa believes that “A person who does not read…is a person with an impediment: he can speak much but will say little.” Even audiovisual media, which today seems to be all the rage, cannot possibly express the nuances of language as well as the written word can. In fact, almost every time that an audiovisual program is labeled “literary” it is thought of as boring. Also, audiovisual media, by design, puts the picture first and the words second.

Vargas Llosa goes on to discuss the fate of books. It is his understanding that the fate of literature and the fate of books are one and same. He believes that “not only is literature indispensible…but its fate is linked…indissolubly with the fate of the book.” This brings us to the topic of Bill Gates. He gave a speech in Spain in which he declared that he expects to accomplish his greatest goal before he died; the goal of ending the use of paper for books. Vargas Llosa makes it very clear that he vehemently disagrees with Gates. “Had I been there I would have booed gates for proclaiming shamelessly his intention to send me…directly to the unemployment line,” he writes. He clearly assumes that there is no future for literature without paper books with ink on their pages.

Finally, Vargas Llosa writes, reading is absolutely essential to critical thinking. Literature pushes boundaries. Literature is usually radical, and that causes a reader to begin questioning the status quo. Reading intensifies our uneasiness to the point that we are forced to do something about it. The author proves this by pointing out that a “mediocre novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe seems to have played a decisive role in raising social and political consciousness of the horrors of slavery in the United States.” Even a book that is not considered a literary masterpiece clearly has the power to provoke change.

Literature is intended for malcontents. Reading will not affect one that has it all. “Literature is the food of the rebellious spirit…the refuge for those who have too much or too little in life.” It is only when we are struggling that we can appreciate the refuge of fantasy that reading provides. However, that refuge only lasts momentarily, and when one crashes back to reality we long for that refuge once again. That longing acts as the catalyst for change; for making the world a better place. Vargas Llosa suggests that reading is the best way to create such change.

I have mixed feelings about this topic. I do agree that people do not read nearly enough. However, I think that the author’s view of what happens to society when there isn’t enough literature is a bit dramatic. I think it is a bit of a stretch for the author to proclaim “that a society without literature…is a society that is condemned to become spiritually barbaric.” Also, I think that the author puts too much emphasis on reading on actual paper. I believe that many of the benefits of reading can still be garnered through reading digitally. Furthermore, the idea that the disappearance of books sends writers directly to the unemployment line is absurd. Even if all literature was digital, there would still be a need for talented content providers; for people like Mr. Vargas Llosa.

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ESSAY REVIEW

I enjoyed your essay, even thought it is largely a summary, made up of quotations and paraphrases of another essay. Well, you got me to read “Why Literature,” which is something. Most of the summary is fairly accurate, but it's not completely accurate, or even complete. You could try to improve your essay by making the summary more accurate, and by adding a few words about the importance of words like “Kafkaesque,” but the unfortunate truth is that even if you do that, it will still be an average, if enjoyable, essay. You need to write a real essay. A critical essay. An argumentative essay. You need, in short, something to say. You do conclude, of course, with a few personal opinions, but these opinions are not argued, and come in any case too late to salvage what is, for the most part, a laundry list of things that you found in Mario Vargas Llosa's essay. You're going to hate me for saying this (I forgive you!), but I think you should (more or less) scrap the whole thing and begin again, this time with a view to presenting the actual kernel of the argument (as opposed to summarizing or paraphrasing every claim, whether important or not) and making critical observations about that argument. Basically, you want to communicate: 1) What Vargas Losa's main argument is; 2) What reasons he has for advancing that argument; 3) Why we should credit or discredit the argument. Instead of summarizing the essay, either make an argument about the essay, or make an argument about the essay's topic that draws on the essay.

Here's the basic argument of "Why Literature?:

"I am convinced that a society without literature, or a society in which literature has been relegated--like some hidden vice--to the margins of social and personal life, and transformed into something like a sectarian cult, is a society condemned to become spiritually barbaric, and even to jeopardize its freedom. I wish to offer a few arguments against the idea of literature as a luxury pastime, and in favor of viewing it as one of the most primary and necessary undertakings of the mind, an irreplaceable activity for the formation of citizens in a modern and democratic society, a society of free individuals."

Now obviously the essay itself goes beyond this general articulation of its scope. For one thing Vargas Llosa makes claims about the value of literature as a source of nuanced vocabulary needed to think about the human condition (although, arguably, the point is related to what he says about a society without literature being condemned to spiritual barbarism, which is a meaty sounding phrase, but one whose exact meaning is a little opaque). The main point of the essay, however, is captured in those couple of sentences. (It might be useful to note that it would be more difficult to identify the couple of sentences in your own essay that define its scope.) Part of your job, I guess (having not read the prompt, if there was one), is to consider how the essay "Why Literature" organizes and develops that main argument. Identify what's important to the articulation of the argument so that you can make reasonable judgments about what's important for you to include in your essay and what's not important. Try to identify just what evidence Vargas Llosa presents and how he connects it to his main argument. For large parts of your essay, you are simply repeating his argument (and in doing that, you don’t adequately distinguish between what is your original contribution to your essay, and what is mere paraphrase). The challenge is to analyze it, and if need be, on the basis of your analysis, to criticize it.

If you do end up criticizing the essay, then make sure you know exactly what you are criticizing, and what counts as criticism. For instance, you say "I think it is a bit of a stretch for the author to proclaim 'that society without literature ... is a society that is condemned to become spiritually barbaric.'" But that is not an argued criticism. As it stands, it just an opinion, and opinions, as you know, are ubiquitous, and therefore worthless. To make an argument (i.e., something of value), explain what you think Vargas means by spiritual barbarism (preferably on the basis of your interpretation of his essay), explain why he thinks such barbarism would follow the end of literature, and then explain why you think his reasoning is flawed. (Note: "spiritual" here probably has nothing to do with "religious spirituality" but rather likely pertains to the life of the mind.)

Finally, Vargas Llosa was writing over ten years ago. I think that is an important fact, but you don't mention it. Ten years is a long time, especially the most recent ten years, in the history of technology, and if it is not a long time in the history of literature itself, it is a long time in the history of the literature industry. That gives you the possibility of adding something concrete to your essay, something about further declines in the reading of literature, say, or about the death of many bookstores, but also about the rise of Amazon, and of new modes of publication, and new technologies for reading.

Reading books online was really a horrible experience ten years ago, by the way; we have much improved approximations of the look of the printed page today, even if today, for those of us who grew up reading "real" paper books, devices like the "Nook" and the "Kindle" still seem poor, if convenient, substitutes. Let the old man have his romantic, nostalgic attachments to the old technologies of the book. The possible weakness of his argument in that respect is hardly devastating to his essay as a whole.


Submitted by: szvolvo
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November,10 2011

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