Home / Columns / “Literature is standing its ground against screens”
éducation – connaissance – savoir – instruction – littérature – ignorance
π Society

“Literature is standing its ground against screens”

Antoine Compagnon
Antoine Compagnon
Professor of French Literature and Author

What can we say about the role of lit­er­a­ture dur­ing the confinement?

Before com­ing to lit­er­a­ture, let’s talk about read­ing, which did not do too bad­ly dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. The drop in sales was mod­er­ate, even though book­stores were closed for many months and there were fears of a dis­as­ter for publishing.

Did this resilience of the “book econ­o­my” ben­e­fit lit­er­a­ture? The answer is not so sim­ple. We observed a very strong con­cen­tra­tion of best­sellers in 2020. Hence, it is best­sellers that have ben­e­fit­ed from the upswing. This can be explained by the fact that it has been more dif­fi­cult to browse through book­stores, and there­fore expe­ri­ence the full diver­si­ty of titles. 

That is what I refer to when I say ‘read­ing’. Where­as lit­er­a­ture is more about rare books, dif­fi­cult books. How­ev­er, there is a nuance to be not­ed here because the sales of the 2020 Goncourt prize, L’Anom­alie, are very good even though the author does belong to the most acces­si­ble cat­e­go­ry of pop­u­lar lit­er­a­ture; that of Oulipo, Que­neau, Calvi­no or Perec. Thus, lit­er­a­ture too seems to have ben­e­fit­ed from the confinement.

This seems all the more true since the clas­sics also sold well. There was a move­ment back to the lit­er­ary col­lec­tion: The Horse­man on the Roof, The Plague… We went to books that could speak to us about the sit­u­a­tion we were experiencing. 

So, over­all, books have not suf­fered too much from the sit­u­a­tion. On the con­trary, some pub­lish­ers record­ed excep­tion­al prof­its in 2020, which was a sur­prise for them: the con­fine­ment did not only ben­e­fit Net­flix as they had feared. We are sat­u­rat­ed with dig­i­tal con­tent, and the sales fig­ures for books show a nice resis­tance to the screen (even e‑books remain mar­gin­al in France). All in all, this is not a bad year for literature.

What is the role of lit­er­a­ture? What are the ben­e­fits it pro­vides that screens cannot?

Lit­er­a­ture serves to widen our field of expe­ri­ence, to open our­selves up to what we can­not know by our­selves about the world around us. It serves to free us from our prej­u­dices. In fact, that is the same func­tion lit­er­a­ture has always served. Aris­to­tle already of spoke already the cathar­sis in Poet­ics; a com­pli­cat­ed notion since we still do not know what exact­ly it implies, oth­er it con­sists of liv­ing things through the expe­ri­ences of others.

Lit­er­a­ture edu­cates by mul­ti­ply­ing sen­sa­tions and expe­ri­ences; through which we dis­cov­er some­thing else. It is well known that humans learn much bet­ter by exam­ple than by rule, which we know but do not apply. Christ speaks in para­bles, because alle­go­ry or fable are more instruc­tive than commandments.

There are, of course, oth­er ways to learn, espe­cial­ly through the screen. But the writ­ten word has cer­tain priv­i­leges, which are linked to the free­dom that lan­guage gives in rela­tion to images. When faced with the screen adap­ta­tion of a nov­el that we love, we often feel a sense of dis­ap­point­ment, because this was not how we imag­ined the char­ac­ters and their world. The free­dom of imag­i­na­tion that read­ing gives is with­out equiv­a­lent: it is the great priv­i­lege of the writ­ten word, which remains com­pared to oth­er modes of narration.

This priv­i­lege is also linked to time: we are less depen­dent on its lin­ear­i­ty when we read than when we watch a film. The “pause” but­ton on VCRs was one of the great inven­tions of the 20th cen­tu­ry, but it has noth­ing in com­mon with the free­dom to read a book at one’s own pace, to be able to slow down, speed up, sus­pend… So, the advan­tages of lit­er­a­ture remain.

Young adults stop read­ing at the age of tran­si­tion from chil­dren’s books to “main­stream” literature

How­ev­er, younger chil­dren have been read­ing a lit­tle less in 2020. How can we help them under­stand the impor­tance of books?

The dif­fi­cul­ty with books is in ado­les­cence rather than child­hood. That’s when many give up read­ing. Young adults stop read­ing at the age of tran­si­tion from children’s books to “main­stream” lit­er­a­ture. This is actu­al­ly more true for boys than for girls.

What can we tell them? Prob­a­bly explain to them that lit­er­a­ture will help them in their pro­fes­sion­al careers. I have often argued that lit­er­ary cul­ture is an asset in all sorts of activ­i­ties. Proust points this out in The Search: a bet­ter lawyer (or engi­neer, or doc­tor) is a lawyer (or engi­neer, or doc­tor) who has a lit­er­ary culture.

Lit­er­ary cul­ture is always an asset for suc­cess – what­ev­er the activ­i­ty – because it gives an expe­ri­ence of the oth­er, and because, in all pro­fes­sion­al sec­tors, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, dia­logue, inter­ac­tions with oth­ers are at stake.

Var­i­ous cours­es have intro­duced lit­er­a­ture to human­ise their cur­ric­u­la, which had become exces­sive­ly tech­ni­cal. This is the case, for exam­ple, in med­i­cine: in many fac­ul­ties, lit­er­ary teach­ing has been intro­duced to human­ise the rela­tion­ship between doc­tors, med­ical staff, and patients. The idea is quite sim­ply that a strict­ly tech­ni­cal med­i­cine has more dif­fi­cul­ty in cur­ing; the dis­ease must be part of a sto­ry, told between the doc­tor and the patient. A med­i­cine that has a nar­ra­tive dimen­sion is in this way a bet­ter medicine.

I have spo­ken about lit­er­a­ture in med­ical schools. There is a whole body of texts about ill­ness, death and heal­ing. We read Thomas Mann’s Mag­ic Moun­tain or Solzhenitsyn’s The Can­cer Ward. And it is impor­tant that physi­cians have some famil­iar­i­ty with the ways in which ill­ness is nar­rat­ed. This rea­son­ing applies to all dis­ci­plines, includ­ing engineering.

Does lit­er­a­ture allow us to bet­ter under­stand the sciences?

How can we doubt it? The best math­e­mati­cians and physi­cists are also poets. They give their inven­tions the most metaphor­i­cal names because they think like poets. Think of cat­a­stro­phe the­o­ry, Schrödinger’s cat, or string the­o­ry. I men­tioned ear­li­er the con­tri­bu­tion of the nov­el to the intel­li­gence of the world, to the under­stand­ing of oth­ers. But it is the imag­i­na­tion to which poet­ry has intro­duced them that makes sci­en­tists better.

Interview by Clément Boulle and Juliette Parmentier


Antoine Compagnon

Antoine Compagnon

Professor of French Literature and Author

Antoine Compagnon has been a professor at the Collège de France, chair of Modern and Contemporary French Literature, and a professor at Columbia University in New York. He has published some fifteen books on Montaigne, Baudelaire, Proust, literary theory and the history of criticism, as well as several more personal accounts. Among his latest books, Les Chiffonniers de Paris (Gallimard, 2017).