Our Ultimate Frontier of Freedom
Updated: Jul 8, 2020
In what seems like a post apocalyptic world where there’s a virus threatening the human race and political turmoil is dividing populations, while technology has become a bare necessity, it is common to ask what is the relevance of literature right now?
But this prevailing question is as old as the origins of literature itself. Galileo saw reading as a way of having superhuman powers, while Kafka saw books as "the axe for the frozen sea within us"; and for Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, they stood as "our ultimate frontier of freedom".
It is convenient to dismiss the power of these authors’ works as irrelevant during our times, but the truth is far from it. In fact, the opposite view holds true. While societal norms are constantly evolving, the human condition is timeless: we still possess the same fundamental vices, desires, and apprehensions as our ancestors did, thousands of years ago.
So I thought, what’s a more apt way of starting my literature blog than sharing my understanding of Neil Gaiman’s eloquently written piece, “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming,” to illustrate my argument?
Gaiman’s piece considers several aspects of literature to highlight its role in enriching the human experience. In the nascent paragraphs of his essay, he discusses literature’s power to hone empathy in people, circling back to the idea that the human condition is essentially timeless.
“Prose fiction is something you build up from twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world, and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.”-Gaiman
Then, Gaiman goes on to prove the power of physical books in relation to the test of time, but spares the advanced digital mediums of our day. Whether we are “reading a scroll or scrolling a screen,” as long as we are gaining new insights from the content, we are benefitting.
What personally resonated with me was the end of the piece, where Gaiman speaks particularly of relevance to our times. The timelessness of books to understand our predecessors and hear their voice allows us to shape our politics and society on the foundation of lessons we learn from them.
“Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.”
So while we are cooped up in our homes, feeling more stifled and suppressed with the humanitarian and political crises across the world, we can turn to what Wisława Szymborska deems as “our ultimate frontier of freedom,” and for now, find solace in the resolutions of the literature written by our predecessors.