Wordy Wednesdays: Why literature matters

If you haven’t read my About page, then you may not know that up until last month, I was officially doing a Phd in English at the University of Alberta.

I had no idea I would love studying literature so much until I started doing it–my first plan was to go into translation. I’ve always loved to read but had not realized how much it mattered to me until I started my BA.

And then, 6 years later, the thought of analyzing primary school-level late Victorian illustrated textbooks (yes, that was my dissertation topic) just didn’t seem that interesting to me anymore. The problem with hyper-specialization in literature research, I realized, is that it has become almost impossible to work on things you love. As an MA, it doesn’t matter that much since you’re not expected to make “a significant intervention in the body of knowledge”; I worked on my favourite Victorian author, George Eliot, and had a great time doing it. But as a PhD, working on George Eliot borders on the impossible.

The problem, as I see it with a little time away, is that as an undergrad, it’s literature that matters. However, as you move on to the graduate level, literature gives place to puffed up theories, self-important research and general snobism about the facts of the “real” world: business (anathema to Marxists), TV (such a cheap form of entertainment, my dear) and non-academics (which make up the majority of the population and to whom we eventually respond to anyway).

So to come back to my topic, why does literature matter?

It’s fun

It doesn’t matter what books you read, as long as you read something. I gained as much pleasure and enjoyment reading the Millenium trilogy as reading the more philosophical Middlemarch. Snobbing Dan Brown because “it’s just popular stuff” is like snobbing Charles Dickens or Walter Scott: they were “popular” in their time as well.

It opens up your mind

The Internet is great for information and learning about what’s going on around the world, but people are extremely selective and it’s easy to just click away (or “bounce”) from something we don’t find relevant. However, when we pick up a book, we feel compelled to at least try a few pages. In books, authors are allowed to stretch the bounds of what’s acceptable or what’s real. Reading a book forces you to open your mind up to other points of view, other realities.

It helps see the world a bit more clearly

You don’t need literature training to be able to analyze texts. We do this all the time: with ads, newspapers, Internet. Books are a great way to go a bit more in depth and to apply those analytical skills to a bigger piece. You don’t need to know feminism or marxism or any other “ism” to analyze a text. All you need to do is read between the lines, and anyone who understands literature for what it is (fiction and not reality) does exactly that.

Despite the fact that “New Historicism” (yes, another ism) is not fashionable in academic literary circles these days, I’ve always believed it to be the most worthy type of analysis–analysis of a work of literature in its historical context. In the end, I found that the only thing that I wanted to know was, why do authors feel the need to write about certain topics at certain times? Why did this or that story need to be told?

But in the end, I believe literature matters because writers keep writing and readers keep reading. Useless things die off quickly. Just look at Harry Potter or Twilight. They’re books. Maybe not good ones according to academic critera, but their authors are millionaires. Thinking too much about all the “isms” of this world only distracted me from that simple reality:

Books are fun.

Why do you like books and literature? Why does reading matter to you? If you’re an academic, has your perception of reading changed?

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2 Comments

Filed under Thoughts, Writing

2 responses to “Wordy Wednesdays: Why literature matters

  1. Heather

    i had to stop reading when preparing for my comprehensive exams – and one of the first things i did to celebrate was renew “reading for pleasure.” I realize though that since i’ve become thoroughly imbued in academia, my tastes are such that with fiction, i want beach books, and am much more interested in “popular” history of fields in which i am nowhere near a specialist.

    On “academic writing,” i highly recommend this article which is actually about one of the professors here at JHU: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/24/books/review/an-academic-authors-unintentional-masterpiece.html?_r=1

  2. I wrote a few books for publication, on technical subjects, on short timelines. I found that when I was writing, and for some time afterwards, I had really lost my ability to enjoy reading for pleasure. In fact, given that I still write for a living, I’m not sure this has been fully recovered. There are many other things I enjoy, so it’s not a total loss, but my childhood and adolescent ability to become totally absorbed in a good book is just not so much there anymore.

    A couple of perhaps unusual books, or guilty pleasures, I’ve enjoyed are circa-1960s Harlequin romances. I tell myself that I am reading them ironically with a feminist and historical perspective :). One was based in South Africa, which allowed for a fascinating look at an authorial perspective which appeared utterly unaware of colonialism and racism.

    On the more literary side, a couple of books I’ve recently enjoyed are “Irma Voth” (by Miriam Toews) and “The Painted Veil” (Somerset Maugham).

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