Why Study Literature?

atkins-bookshelf-literatureBookshelf dedicates this post to English teachers throughout the world; they understand that their work is not simply a job, but a calling — to imbue students with a lifelong passion for literature as a window into humanity, the world, and their own lives so that they each of them can discover their own meaning and purpose in this world.

Victoria Best is the author of the brilliant blog, Tales from the Reading Room, and a former lecturer of French literature at Cambridge Univeristy. In an eloquent,  insightful, and thought-provoking essay, On Teaching Literature, Best discusses the responsibilities that teaching literature places on both the teacher and the student, as well as the challenges that they face. Best begins her fascinating essay by discussing the unfortunate gradual decline of teaching literature in the United Kingdom (the United States is certainly not immune to the erosion of the pillars of the humanities). Best begins by lambasting the old teaching methods and the damages it causes: “For teaching literature can be full of pitfalls. When I was fifteen — a young girl who constantly had her nose stuck in a book at home — I hated the way we did it in school… In the classroom we ‘read around the class’ a dull and painful exercise that took all immediacy from the words. Then we chopped the text up into little bits and studied them in a way that removed the natural connection between imagination and emotion… I needed a good teacher to stretch my emotional understanding, and that can be hard to do in a class of thirty students, all with different needs. Even all these years later, Shakespeare and Dickens remain two authors I cannot love, destroyed as they were by that old-fashioned teaching process.”

When Best had an opportunity to teach literature herself, it was time for a critical assessment of pedagogical approaches to literature: “When I took up a university post teaching French literature I had to think long and hard about what we’re doing when we ‘teach’ a book or a play or a poem; what do we want out of it, how do we use it, and how best to lead students into an effective understanding? If you don’t ‘get’ literature, it can seem very perplexing and rebarbative. At worst, you can damage a student’s relationship to literature forever; thinking deeply about books can be something they never wish to do again.”

As she carefully examined her interactions with her students, Best came to appreciate how literature challenged students and the many obstacles that students faced in fully engaging with literature. The first obstacle is the expression of thoughts and emotions: “At first they were shy about expressing what they thought. Too often they felt that loving or hating a book was the end of the matter. And they struggled to manage their tangled and convoluted thoughts in writing. This made sense: studying literature is primarily an exercise in self-awareness…  And a good piece of literature will not provide the straightforward answers we often long for. Literature is not there to solve the problems of the world, but to give us a startling, enlightening glimpse of them in all their awkward complexity. What we feel about this draws on complicated emotions – some provoked by the story, some from personal history – and expressing either can be difficult to do.”

The second obstacle is the discipline that literature requires: “[Students] bumped up against the curious combination of creativity and discipline that literature demands. The way it invites us to think all manner of things, but to dismiss the majority in the interests of common sense, logic and emotional veracity. My students had to learn to deduce their conclusions only from the words on the page, not speculate wildly the way all other forms of media encourage them to do. And they had to organise their thought with care and reason to take another person through their argument.”

The third obstacle is the ability to think deeply and slowly: “This is the thing about studying literature – it stymies both of our main contemporary approaches to knowledge: the test-oriented desire for tickable answers, and the gossipy search for a self-righteous opinion. And so the huge obstacle it presents to the average teenager is the demand for slow thinking, not quick thinking, that pleasurable stab at what ‘everyone’ knows. My students struggled with the open-ended curiosity books required of them, the gentle, patient contemplation, the complete lack of an absolute answer. I told them that learning was most effective when it felt like a trip to a lesser Greek island – a place where there wasn’t much else to do but read and think. They almost preferred their own vision of themselves chained up to a hungry furnace in hell, shovelling in pages of mindless writing while being whipped by pitchfork-wielding devils.”

The fourth obstacle is narcissism. Indeed, great literature shakes us from our complacency — even more critical today as individuals become more isolated in their digital-device-created bubbles, oblivious to life’s nuanced ebbs and flows. Best continues the discussion: “For books do not keep us safe. They shake us out of ourselves, loosen our stranglehold on certainties, get us to walk a mile in another’s shoes. My job as a teacher was initially to unclasp my student’s fingers from their cherished narcissism. If they could put themselves to one side — forget themselves in a book, in the way that can be so wonderful — they could experience literature as a protected arena in which all sorts of troubling or paradoxical situations are contained and worked through. They could discover new ideas, new perspectives, and gain new sophistication in their beliefs.”

Best concludes with one of the most eloquent and brilliant — not to mention, inspirational — testimonies about why it is important to study literature. Best writes: “This is why literature is so important. Its study requires very different skills to those demanded by other mainstream subjects. All those issues my students struggled with – self-awareness, creativity, the challenge to established beliefs, the focused contemplation, the juggling of interpretations which had to be backed up by evidence – all exercised their minds in vital ways. And beyond that, stories form the great building block of existence. Whether they are stories we tell about ourselves to create identity, or stories in the news, or stories given to us by the authorities, the form becomes so familiar as to be lost to critique. It’s important to realise how determining stories are, and how we build them to persuade, insist and explain things that are often no more than cherished hopes. We lose a lot of insight if we don’t understand how stories function and the immense underground work they do within a culture.”

Amen.

Read related posts: Why Read Dickens?
The Power of Literature
The Benefits of Reading
50 Books That Will Change Your Life
The Books that Shaped America

For further reading: https://litlove.wordpress.com/2014/10/15/on-teaching-literature/
Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino, Vintage (2001)
Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English and American Literature by Joseph Epstein, Paul Dry Books (2007)

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2 responses to “Why Study Literature?

  • etinkerbell

    Super interesting, Alexander. Thanks for sharing it. 🙂

    • Alexander Atkins

      My pleasure, Stefania. I was struck by Best’s deeply felt and contemplated observations about the challenges of teaching literature for both teachers and students. As an English teacher, I am sure you can fully appreciate Best’s comments. I greatly enjoy reading your posts which are so reflective and full of insights, and reveal your passion for literature and the beauty of the world. As always, thank you for your steady support of Bookshelf; it is greatly appreciated. Cheers. Alex

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