There are many ways of knowing--of coming into knowing or knowledge--and reading literature is one of them. Many of us often neglect this sort of knowledge or the pursuit of it, because it's less facts-based, apparently less useful for the here and now, less pragmatic. Rather--or so the common line of thinking goes--literature is just stories or poems and not much good for day to day living.
I say otherwise. If anything, literature is exactly about day to day living. Students often ask, "When are we going to use this in real life?" With literature, the answer is simply, "This is real life." At least, literature deals with the particulars of life, giving them form for us to grasp and understand and, well, something from which to gain knowledge.
Emotion, Imagination, and Experience
Knowledge is communicated through literature differently than it is through other sorts of writing. The primary difference is that story and poetry show human experience, while the other types primarily tell about it. We don’t generally read a story to get information, as we would a newspaper article. Rather, a story or poem is a sort of portal or window on or into the world (an idea I got from Leland Ryken of Weaton College). We look through this window, and yes, we see a world depicted which may be a world of elves and dwarves, heroes and villains, princesses and knights, or common men and women with common lives in a world just like our own. But more than that, we also see our own world in a new light as a result. In many ways, literature helps us to better contemplate and understand our own reality and experience, even if the stories are far-fetched fantasy adventures of orcs and talking trees. Literature does so by showing us life.
Also, stories and poems usually deal with what is concrete. It takes human experience and doesn’t simply define or explore the philosophical nature of such things as love, conflict, suffering, family, etc. Literature puts ideas and emotions, which are abstract, into a determinate shape in the imagination. It shows us these things—and more—played out through the lives and experiences of characters or poetic speakers. An author will have characters going through actions, living life in a setting of some kind. He will use sensory details—words and descriptions that appeal to the five senses—to bring the characters, the action, the setting to life. And this “bringing to life” occurs in our imagination as we read or hear a story. With such in our imagination, we can somehow “hold” onto it, understand it, almost “touch” it, as if it had more substance than an idea or emotion.
To be sure, as we read stories we are moved in our intellect, just as we are when we read other types of written language for facts. But in addition to our intellect, our imagination and our emotions are also moved. In this way, a story or poem expresses the whole of reality, the whole of life. A story may not express exactly what we personally think about reality and life, but it certainly does express a sense of life. We experience a sense of the way things truly are.
Again, like most (maybe all) types of writing, literature communicates to our intellect, but more than that, it communicates to our emotions, our imaginations, and our experience. This is how literature is a mode of knowledge, and such knowledge is what we desperately as human beings trying to live in community in our schools, churches, towns, cities, states, countries.