Jane Smiley's 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel may provide an even more valuable perspective on why literature is so important. To be honest, I'm not sure whether Smiley does this in her book, because I have not actually read it yet (I perused it briefly in a book store last night), but I was wowed by the comment of a reviewer on Amazon.com about her book. This reviewer said:
The inner lives of humans didn't figure into the themes of novels until more recent times. Novels have done exactly what the Church and the Establishment once feared. They have caused women and men to think differently and outside the box of their little worlds or economic stratas. They encouraged people to marry for love. They encouraged people to think well of difference in others, or at the very least , give people credit for character and not caste.
That statement is incredibly fascinating--and probably well known to people who are more familiar with the history of the novel and of humanities in general in modern society. What it says is that novels are revolutionary. In a society where book review periodicals are published weekly and there's a Barnes & Noble in every midscale and upscale neighborhood or town, it is easy to forget it or not even realize it. Maybe there should be more study of the impact of novels on human history--that is, if there isn't already. What a fascinating subject.