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I’d never want to say that there’s only one purpose to literature. I’m not even sure that literature has a purpose, other than to give pleasure and, possibly, enlightenment. Ours is a pragmatic culture, and we’re always trying to justify something by saying what its purpose is. But sometimes art has no clear purpose, apart from the pleasure it gives. What’s the purpose of Debussy’s Preludes? And do novels really make us care deeply about others? If they did, English departments would be full of generous, humane, and sweet-tempered people. Joseph Goebbels wrote a novel, and Hitler loved Wagner’s operas. Art does not always make us better people. We have to remember that.

Literary critic Charles Baxter counters the notion that art cultivates our capacity for empathy. But using the mere existence of exceptions as reason to dismiss a larger truth is not only a failure of logic but a form of intellectual laziness. How can one deny that reading and the humanities make us better, make us larger than ourselves, something even science has indicated? Reading itself, after all, is an act of empathy. Or, as Amanda Palmer poignantly put it, "to erase the possibility of empathy is to erase the act of making art."

( The Dish)

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