Why Study Literature?

Why should young people study literature?  Why, in particular, should seventeen-to-twenty-year-olds who don’t read for pleasure and have weak literacy skills be forced to spend their time reading poetry, novels, plays etc. instead of working on simple reading comprehension and writing skills?  Is it as important for students to read Salinger or Ishiguro as it is for them to read the newspaper?  Why am I teaching this stuff?

For one of my MEd courses, I need to research, summarize and evaluate scholarly articles about teaching my discipline.  In order to start on this review, I need to come up with a research question.  Thus far, my general questions are those I list above.  From here, I need to decide what, specifically, I want to investigate – skills that I want my students to learn by studying literature, and the best ways to teach these skills effectively.

Maybe you can help get my thoughts on this rolling.  Do you have opinions on this subject?  Why is the study of literature important?  What skills do students learn through reading literature?  Can they learn these skills through reading literature in ways that they can’t elsewhere?  Why should college-level students who don’t like reading and who don’t see a practical application for literature in their lives be required to take English courses in which literary analysis is a major component?  Are we serving them well by demanding this?  Why do we not just focus on grammar and composition and leave the literature to the English majors?

Image by Szuszanna Kilian

39 responses

  1. Great post! I’m trying to spread “the word” as much as possible. Language can only be ‘inherited” if we allow ourselves to inherit the language that was used by previous authors. Check out nikopedia.wordpress.com for related articles! I’ll post something about studying literature later today.

    • nikopedia :

      Language can only be ‘inherited” if we allow ourselves to inherit the language that was used by previous authors.

      What an intriguing statement! I look forward to reading what you have to say about this.

  2. I think students should study literature because it helps them learn about themselves and the world. Stories expose them to differing view points and experiences in new ways. Literature deals with the things that are close to our hearts.

    • Cammy: I agree with you here. I often suggest to students that reading a novel or a poem, especially one with a first-person narrator, is really the only way to experience being inside someone else’s mind. It’s sometimes difficult, though, to describe this “skill” in ways that make it sound concrete and utilitarian…

    • Actually, if students wanted to learn about themselves they shouldn’t be taking literature. The classes that they would need to be enroled in are called biology for physical attributes and for mental behaviours they would take pyschology classes.To learn about the world, would students not need to take a geography or geology course? To me it seems like the only logical way to really learn about these topics. Literature is an abstract form of teaching. Enjoy reading hundreds of books when I can go onto a search engine and “google” the topic.

      “Stories expose them to differing view points and experiences in new ways”…Well actually, studies of the human brain show that the imagination of people are different. By this I mean that some people do not have the imagination power to be able to put themselves in the characters view point as you may. To some, reading involves just looking at individual words and processing them. No image, no scene is created. This dilemma occurs quite often in the classroom when the novels and plays that the student has to read is predetermined. Intrest is immediately lost.

  3. Also, how much English does one learn from a newspaper? It is aimed at people with a reading age of twelve. There is a bit of specialized vocabulary but it is embedded in mostly very basic vocabulary. Some of the style can be pretty poor and even a mainstream paper like The Gazette contains grammar mistakes (e.g. “would of”). We want to encourage students to do better than that. Reading literature, they expand their vocabularies, subtly enough that they don’t always realize they are doing it. I do not teach much current work; I enjoy escorting my students as if they are guests temprarily taking their shoes off and entering someone else’s home, such as Aristophanes’ Athens. Like good guests, they must take others’ culture, time, and place as it IS and not how the student would like it to be.

    • Michael:

      “Also, how much English does one learn from a newspaper?”

      I think a related question would be: how much English do our students need? Many of them would protest that in the lives they want to lead, newspaper-level English is more than adequate. In fact, many of them would consider a large vocabulary a show-offy liability, and they may be right. I have many memories of resentful accusations that I “talked like a dictionary,” and being bookish and articulate often made me the object of suspicion. And it wasn’t just my peers who felt that way: lots of adults are alienated by the traits we, as English teachers, might consider valuable. For some students, being and sounding “educated” can have a negative effect on their standing in their social, community and family circles. Why should they persist in “educating” themselves, by reading literature, anyway? That is, are such compromises worth it for them in the long run?

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  5. As both a student of literature and a teacher of composition 1 and 2, I can see both sides of the argument (or at least I think I can). Most students don’t see much purpose in reading possibly because they were not taught or did not retain the lesson of the joy of reading. Especially in more modern times, it seems as though young adults are more interested in what they consider more interactive things, such as video games. I frequently offer book titles and authors to my students. They often scoff at the idea of reading as an interactive or escapist act, but they will then converse for hours with another student about how exciting the latest PS3 game is and how interactive the controls, camera, and game play are. Perhaps I merely have an overactive imagination, but reading is highly interactive to me on many levels. Words form pictures and in turn pull me deeper in to a text.

    On the other hand, I can see where students would not find reading as a beneficial or interactive act since many of my students have confessed an inability to picture what the words say. I surmise this comes from being placed in front of a television too many times as a child (or teenager) and having the images formed for them, which may also tie into some students inability to have an attention span longer than thirty minutes.

    I always tell my composition students that reading novels, poetry, essays, and articles will increase their understanding of writing, grammar, punctuation, spelling, vocabulary, and sentence structure, all of which will increase their grades in a composition course. But it also increases their knowledge of how other people and cultures interact, work, play, and live. It gives them an insight, no matter how small, into history, mathematics, physics, psychology, sociology, culture, gender, race, religion, sexuality, and philosophy, just to name a few. You can’t understand the meaning behind a racial or gender issue simply by reading about it in a newspaper. You can’t feel the impact of an issue just be reading a few facts.

    When analyzing texts, scholars of literature look for new ways to understand the author’s meaning and intent. This then translates into being able to understand existing and potential problems and solutions. The ability to see things from new, fresh, and different perspectives is invaluable in the workplace and even among friends and family, though they may not always realize it.

    I feel as though I am ranting, so I will stop here, but I am glad you posed these questions. I enjoy the chance to share my thoughts on topics that hound others as well as myself. 🙂

    • Vade:
      Not a rant at all, but a very thoughtful response. One thing that keeps presenting itself in the comments here as well as those on my OpenSalon blog – http://open.salon.com/blog/siobhan_curious/2010/02/02/why_study_literature – and in face-to-face conversations is that reading and writing about literature is a way to understand history, culture and, most importantly, human life. I have always been convinced of this – and I teach a course subtitled “The Novel and ‘Human Nature'” – but I think I have to make this more explicit with my students, and to emphasize that we are not just examining texts but that ideally we are bringing the questions they raise into our lives. Thank you so much for your detailed and articulate comment!

      • If we wanted students to gain insight into history, we would have them take a history class. If we wanted them to learn about culture and the interaction between cultures, we would have them take an international studies course. If we wanted them to learn about human nature, we would have them take phycology and neurology courses. The study of these topics through fictional literature is becoming outdated as we find fields that can quantify them and better explain them. The only purposes that fictional works of literature have in the modern world are entertainment and perhaps a very slight into philosophy. It is my prediction that, when the most recent generation comes of age as the leaders of this world, the study of literature will be regulated to the field of philosophy and will be no longer required as a requirement for graduation.

        • You have made my day. I have been searching for your answer for more than 40 years. I have always loved to read, but as a teen could not fully grasp literary analysis as anything more than subjective BS (“much ado about nothing”). How can a young person write an analysis of a subject they just don’t fully believe in or comprehend? I know, you buy the “Cliffs Notes” as most of my classmates did or you drop out. I was fortunate to find a way to work around this road block to getting a degree and have had an excellent career. My hope is that some day academia will wake up and make some changes to help those with alternate talents and not just toss them aside to “Voke” schools as if that is a dirty word. Have you never read “The Animal School” by George Reavis? Perhaps that should be a requirement for liberal arts majors. Thank you so much for your thoughts.

  6. I have three main reasons for teaching literature, and I need to remind myself of them every day–it is so easy for them to get buried in standards and assessments and skills…so, I’ll gladly take the opportunity to share!

    1. To teach empathy. Related to what others have mentioned above, it is through immersing ourselves in others’ stories (not just hearing them summarized, but truly immersing ourselves in the imagery, emotions, language of these stories) that we can have empathy. And empathy is what keeps us human.

    2. Our lives are stories. Our past, our hopes for the future, what we are doing in the present. I remind my students all the time that everything they care about arises from a story of some kind–their favorite basketball star, their ongoing flirtation with that girl in math class, their down-time in the cafeteria with their friends… All of these things revolve around stories–how that player rose to stardom, what will happen with that girl, what they share about their day, their plans for the weekend. By deepening our understanding of these stories (including the more complex and meaningful ones of our lives), we understand ourselves better, and we understand others better. By learning how to truly engage with the great stories of literature–those that have stood the test of time as well as those that are fleeting in their popularity–we learn how to truly engage in our lives in meaningful ways.

    3. To go from poet to teacher now, I have to add: critical thinking. As we know, young people are inundated with images, messages, information…ALL THE TIME. Analyzing literature and the various choices and tools that an author has at his/her disposal is just ONE way for students to learn how to think critically about the world around them, although it’s definitely not the only front on which this gargantuan task should be tackled. The hardest part, I’ve found, is to get them to see that the media outlets that they are so comfortable with are just as multi-layered and deliberate as literature and to be able to seamlessly apply those analytical skills to other media.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking question!

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  11. I do not believe that literature (reading and being graded on interpreting someone’s fictional story) should be required. All fiction is propaganda of some sort. We can read and analyze factual history to gain critical thinking skills much better than we can from a contrived story where the outcome is determined in the imagination instead of actual consequence of actions. Reality is truly stranger than fiction and there is a plethora of information where student can gain skills in all areas of life. Sit down with students and discuss the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists Papers and how they had to come to an agreement on a piece of paper that would satisfy all types of people wanting different types of protections while respecting all types of religious beliefs and allowing personal freedom, talk about critical thinking, merging the rights of the collective with the rights of the individual in a cohesive contract. That is just one example where learning facts instead of fiction would better critical thinking without giving way to the indoctrination of a novelist.

    • I would have to disagree with Toni. I have learned much more from analyzing literature, stories, and art then I have from analyzing history. We can explore thoughts, ideas, and feelings much more in literature than we can through history. Not that I haven’t learned some interesting stuff in history but personally I have found literature and stories to be much more meaningful in my own life.

        • I am just now seeing this, what you learn from literature is propaganda, take Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle, even he said it resulted in unintended consequences. He wrote the book to evoke emotion among the public; he wrote many falsehoods and misinformed the public but the masses read the book as if it were truth. That is dangerous.

          ‘Sinclair rejected the legislation, as he viewed it as an unjustified boon to large meat packers partially because the U.S. taxpayer, rather than the packing companies, were to bear the costs of inspection at $30,000,000 a year.[19][20] He famously complained about the public’s misunderstanding of the point of his book in Cosmopolitan Magazine in October 1906 by stating, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” [21]’


  12. If you can use the first day of classes to find out what sorts of things interest them in life in general, and if you have the freedom to choose what you teach in your classes, the best method would be to teach literature or to use more minor activities that relate to their interests. If you have lots of students who are from a particular discipline, maybe use texts that somehow relate to it (e.g., science fiction for science and tech students). If you have a wide mix of students, are you allowed to assign independent / group work where they can engage with differing texts? Even better – can you have the students choose their own books? Or is Cegep all about the Socratic method (teacher lecturing)? Can you take maybe the first 15 minutes of a class for silent reading of a text of their choice (newspaper, poetry, whatever) and have them write in diaries their reflections of what they wrote? That will at least get them working, get them engaged, and hopefully even put them in a good mood or have a positive experience where they are improving their English skills and capacity to enjoy what it is that people like about reading (the chance to reflect, to escape, to go on adventures, to widen their understanding of life, and increase their capacity for critical thinking).

  13. Why read (literature)? What if reading is one of many possibilities for feeling more alive? Maybe even living better? For the reasons already given: leading vicarious lives, coming to know ourselves better, learning about the world and ideas and how to be a better human being. And possibly for another broader reason speculated on by Lynda Barry in the book “Picture This” (that I heard her discuss on CBC radio, Q, yesterday http://cbc.ca/podcasting; what if creative output is a parallel for the immune system in the metaphysical or emotional world? What if we need art (stories, images) for our well being? And I speculate that reading is not exclusive; just a very good possibility for this kind of experience, especially if you are good at it. And you get good at reading (as with everything) by doing it. I asked my thirteen year old daughter why she reads and she says because it’s fun. Sure, she is improving her vocabulary and her understanding of the world, but she does it because it feels good. And I think it feels good because it is good for us. Reading is receptive, so perhaps “output” isn’t an apt description, but I would argue that we are creating when we read- we are creating, or recreating, the story in our heads and hearts. Sometimes this is hard work, but so is rock climbing, and that is fun too. Reading makes me feel alive, that is why it is a better choice than television or Facebook, although those can both do something for me too. Reading just does it better. I am currently reading Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” aloud to my three kids (9, 11, 13) and last night after they went to sleep I got sucked into middle-earth until two in the morning when Bilbo got home. This was just silly, as I have read this book many times, although not for several years, and I will have to finish it with my kids in the days to come, but it was great. I read it for many reasons: I am trying to decide if I want to use it for one of the literature courses I teach; I was thinking about this blog and the “why read literature?” question and I wanted to test it out on myself; but mostly I wanted to finish reading it because it was good, and fun -I like Bilbo and wanted to find out (remember, relive) how he fared in his adventures. My kids understand the story differently than I do; different stories filter through for different ages. But they are spellbound none-the-less. Literature connects them with me, with each other, with the characters in the stories, and with life and how to live it. I think teaching literature to college students (I have this job too) is an opportunity to help them develop one more tool for living a better life; because it is fun, and because reading makes us better people for a million, complex reasons.

    • Sharon:
      Thank you for this comment – it was so much fun to read! I agree with all your points here, and the question of “why read” is one that I am grappling with as well. The question in this post, however, is a bit more specific: why study literary analysis? It comes back to a question I have about what my objectives are. Do I want my college students to primarily learn how to analyze a literary work? Or is it more important for me to help them learn to love reading in the way you describe? If the latter, how can I teach them this?

      • When you start to analyze a literary work you are no longer teaching English and grammar but now trying to teach philosophy and since it is a piece of fiction you know not if that is the true feelings of the author or just a plot to make the book interesting enough for profit.

  14. u guyz are the best.thank you for giving all the reasons for one should study literature.i myself was a primary school teacher and in primary schools you may see students reading a whole lot of different books and they mostly enjoy reading.but some students never even have read a book in their lifes.so i think it is very very important to study literarure.the answers you guyz gave will be used for me as now i am a university student and a teacher part time.so thanks guys ,wish you all success…thank you.

  15. As a former English teacher, turned administrator, turning back to English teacher, I would obviously encourage people to study literature. This was actually once an interview question asked of me. There are important lessons in many good pieces of literature, even if they are considered outdated. The classics offer a universal theme that applies everywhere. We may read about a character with flaws but realize something about ourselves or our world around us in the process. Good literature also moves its readers to feel a certain way.
    Some great literature also applies to what our world has become. One of my favorites is Animal Farm by George Orwell because most governmental problems can be related to the animals in his book. Orwell wanted us to think about that so we did not make the same mistakes in government today, but unfortunately we still do.

  16. Literature can be anything written down for others to experience, that comes from the mind of the person writing it. It does not have to make sense to anyone else, as long as it envokes thought about what is read.

  17. In an iTunes U podcast on writing by Texas A&M university a professor of English was interviewed about writing poetry. He said something profound that stuck with me, “you write what you read.” Makes so much sense. Not only do college-level, and all students need to read and analyze literature it order to write, I would go further. They need to read literature in order to become full human beings–to be able to relate and contribute to their world.

  18. You write what you read – does that mean if you read fiction you will write fiction? Nothing wrong with reading fiction for pleasure. There are plenty of non fiction books out there that enable people to write effectively, learning grammar, reading personal choice biographies, reading how a scientist conveys technical issues to the common layman…

    • For me, there is no requirements if theirs not a need, therefore, reading literature is a sort of molding minds of the reader because of its several composition that have been shown in it. It helps how to summarize and interpret well.

  19. Great post! I totally agree that literature is more important than people make it out to be, it enriches the mind and encourages creativity above all! A better quality of life, I’d be lost without it.

  20. I’ve always thought in school systems where philosophy is taught that literature acts as a proxy. I think the study of language is important too, probably more to do with poetry than prose, especially given how so much of the online world is mediated through the written word. The study of language allows you to find the meaning underneath what is said.

  21. I appreciate your question. I teach a class called ‘analysis through literature’ and we do close reading of the texts, including poetry, fiction and non-fiction and sayings. We both to try and understand what the writer intended but also see what we can discover in the words themselves regardless of intent.
    Because I teach in a language center and not ina school, one of the by-products of this is finding out how incomplete or inaccurate the notes and information coming from the school are. Last week one of my IGCSE students said, after we discussed the text, what all teachers must want to hear. “I wish I could write an analysis of this for myself for what’s really there and not write what my teacher is asking for.”
    I have to negotiate between helping them learn how to read for what’s really there and then how to help them give the teacher what is being asked. I had to teach a new word, ‘sophistry’ in order to explain what has to be done at this point. I also admitted that I refused to give the teachers what they wanted all my years of school and I didn’t recommend that for him.
    I don’t blame the teacher whose strong points are probably not literary analysis. He or she is just following an outline but those in charge of the teaching notes seem to be unqualified at best.

    Why teach literature to students who don’t like it? Luckily, I don’t but if I had to, I think I would try to help them understand that they have the ability to see more than they think they can. That they can find their way through the BS that is everywhere, including in the news, movies, on television and in history, psychology, sociology and other textbooks that they might otherwise believe without a second thought.
    The skills learned in analysis transfer over and literature is so much richer so you learn much more in the same period of time. Working with literature is a bit like swimming. You can do it at the deep end or in the paddling pool. No comparison really.

  22. Great post! I was struggling to understand why I needed to take this course, but honestly, after reading this, I am a little more enthusiastic about learning the poetry and literature part now! Thank you! Great read!

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