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Humanities Libertexts

1.1: Introduction

There are many reasons that a book like this has become necessary, but all of those reasons can be reduced to this point: we as a society seem to have forgotten that reading classic literature is supposed to be both enjoyable and beneficial. The Roman poet Horace made this point some two thousand years ago and the English Renaissance poet Sir Philip Sidney expanded on it some four hundred years ago. Sidney’s point was that the enjoyment of reading literature encouraged people to continue reading and therefore made them more likely to profit from the instruction that was contained in the literature. This formulation sounds a lot like “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down,” and anyone who has ever tried to give a child medicine hidden in some favorite treat knows that the process never works quite so simply. But Sidney does have a point. Classic literature is enjoyable to read, and it does have a great deal to teach us about what it means to be human and to live in this world. Literature teaches and it delights, and these functions are related.

Unfortunately, we have forgotten that literature is enjoyable and I fear that too often we distort it when we teach it. Thus the state of New York pays me a comfortable salary to be a professor of literature, but I wonder whether either the legislators or the taxpayers really understand why. I hope that this little book will help to explain why, at least in part by showing how literature delights and how it instructs. I hope, too, that it will inspire other teachers to emphasize the value and delight of reading literature without watering it down, without cheapening it.

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