Why We Study Literature

by Michelle Lefolii
Principal (and English teacher)

We study literature first because it brings us joy. As John Steinbeck writes, there is nothing comparable to the pleasure of reading a good book, tunnelling like a mole among the thoughts and coming up with it all over our face and hands (280). There are easier forms of pleasure, certainly, but what we seem to forget too often in our search for immediate gratification is that real pleasure, lasting pleasure, is the product of effort as well as chance. We enjoy natural beauty, but we love our own accomplishments with a unique intensity, a gratification which derives from the satisfaction of mastery. Literature is not easy, nor is it simple. It requires great effort, but it also rewards that effort greatly.

The human mind craves complexity. It is designed to recognize patterns, to make associations, to solve puzzles, so much so that it invents them even when they don’t exist (every good conspiracy theorist knows that!). Computer games channel this drive, and the manner in which they reward it is addictive. Young people exchange tips as to how to navigate these games, how to progress from level to level: they teach one another the laws of the game; it is wonderful to watch this passionate exchange of information, and to see the satisfaction they derive as they advance from level to level.

This is the type of teaching I aspire to when I teach literature: my role is to instruct my students in the rules of navigation for the world of fiction, to show them where the hidden charms and magic spells and secret weapons lie that will allow them to move to deeper and deeper (rather than higher and higher) levels. I pass on tips to them, and then let them experiment on their own. Like games, works of literature share certain design features, certain conventions, and once these are understood the groundwork is laid for an understanding of the unique variations posed by each text, the unique challenges it presents. Above all, I teach my students to search for patterns. And when they discover these patterns they take great delight.

But the pleasure of literature doesn’t lie in its complexity alone, or in the mastery of that complexity.  The greatest pleasure it bestows is that of recognition. Literature captivates us by presenting us not with the unknown but with the known.  It brings us face to face with ourselves. And this is true whether we are reading  Hamlet or Ulysses or To the Lighthouse: literature need not be of our time to hold the mirror up to nature. We need not be of the same culture or the same sex as the protagonist to see ourselves. The world around us changes, is constantly in flux. Human nature, however, doesn’t change. Human emotions don’t change. The questions we ask ourselves about the nature and purpose of our existence don’t change. And these are the province of literature.

In the United States, declining literacy rates and test scores have prompted the development of a new common core curriculum. Politicians and educators are correct to be concerned about a decline in the level of student reading skills. But to address this problem by creating a curriculum in which the focus is on informational texts rather than on literature is ham-fisted. A student who is taught how to read a repair manual is learning a useful skill, certainly. But a student who is taught how to read literature learns how to be human.1

Teaching literature is not easy. It is not as straightforward as teaching students how to read informational texts. It takes time and care. Sometimes it’s a struggle. The question of relevancy arises. But surely our role as teachers is not solely to give our students the skills to enter the job market. In any case, that market is in continual flux: what is relevant to it today is obsolete tomorrow.  Shakespeare’s language is not the language of the corporate or professional worlds, or the world of trade. Familiarity with the classics will not help students to get a job. Othello’s Venice is not our home. But when we discuss Othello, we suddenly find ourselves talking about racism and sexism, about misplaced trust, about healthy and unhealthy love, about envy, about the roles both professional and personal of men and women, about fear and insecurity, about manipulation and revenge. These are not merely relevant to the lives of my students, they are of intense personal interest. Young people need to acquire skills, certainly, but they also need to learn how to navigate the world of human relationships.

When we study literature we study ourselves. We see what we hold in common with all human beings. We become more human. We become ourselves.

1 Harold Bloom, of course, in Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human, carries this idea even further. My point is not exactly his, but I am indebted to him for the concept of the crucial role literature plays in shaping our understanding of ourselves.

Works Cited

Steinbeck, John. East of Eden. Penguin, 1980.

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