Often if you think of literature, your first association is the name of a particular text. But literature is more than just a text, for no text stands alone. It has an author, a setting, and an audience. The act of reading therefore goes beyond what’s printed on a page and includes the author, the historical and cultural setting, and the reader. Reading literature is a communicative act. The point is not that you have to learn a lot of biographical or historical facts to understand a work but that you bring your own experience and knowledge to anything you read. The same is true of the writer.
In his 1972 Novel Prize lecture, the Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn stated that “Literature transmits incontrovertible condensed experience . . . from generation to generation. In this way literature becomes the living memory of a nation.” Writers speak to us through their works, spanning time and culture, to share their lives and enrich ours.
A historian, psychologist, anthropologist, sociologist, artist, or teacher might all read a work of literature from distinct perspectives, but each of these perspectives would also share much in common: all of these readers would find in a text a record of a culture, insight into life, and an expression of values.
As readers, we are drawn into a literary text that is in part the expression of the writer's times. The text itself gives us a self-contained, ordered world where we can recognise characters and situations and see and feel events and times through other’s eyes. We look for correspondences between our own lives and culture and those that we find on the pages before us. The connections we find there can bring us pleasure and insight – I know they do for me, and I hope they do for you too.