Literature in the singular

Still about empathy… Teju Cole’s Carrying a Single Life: On Literature and Translation against an empathetic value of literature but for a singular yet collective value of literature:

How can literature help us here? The claim is often made that people who read literature are wiser or kinder, that literature inspires empathy. But is that true? I find that literature doesn’t really do those things. After observing the foreign policies of the so-called developed countries, I cannot trust any complacent claims about the power of literature to inspire empathy. Sometimes, even, it seems that the more libraries we have over here, the more likely we are to bomb people over there.

What we can go to literature for is both larger and smaller than any cliché about how it makes us more empathetic. Literature does not stop the persecution of humans or the prosecution of humanitarians. It does not stop bombs. It does not, no matter how finely wrought, change the minds of the little fascists who once more threaten to overrun the West. So what is it good for—all this effort, this labor, this sweating over the right word, the correct translation?

I offer this: literature can save a life. Just one life at a time. Perhaps at 4 AM when you get out of bed and pull a book of poetry from the shelf. Perhaps over a week in summer when you’re absorbed in a great novel. Something deeply personal happens there, something both tonic and sustaining.