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Humanities Libertexts

1.8: On Reading Literature

So if language is ambiguous and if literature does not send aphoristic little messages, what is the point of studying or even of reading it? Since the State of New York pays me to teach students about literature, I ought to be able to answer this question—and I think I can. Actually I have several answers, some of which might strike other literature teachers as old-fashioned and even naïve but which I prefer to think of as enduring.

Let me begin my answer by saying that literature is not just an escape. Sometimes, of course, people do want to escape and there are books—or sporting events or television shows or video games—that  will help them to do so, but so much in our everyday lives has become a means of escape that I wonder how terrible life is to make people want such escapes. Literature, however, offers not escape but confrontation. As the later chapters of this book will show, literature forces readers to confront the complexities of the world, to confront what it means to be a human being in this difficult and uncertain world, to confront other people who may be unlike them, and ultimately to confront themselves.

And how does literature force these confrontations? The first thing we must realize is that reading literature is an interactive engagement. The composer Gustav Mahler said that a symphony is a world. So is a work of literature, but the relationship between the reader and the world of a work of literature is complex and fascinating. Frequently when we read a work, we become so involved in it that we may feel that we have become part of it. “I was really into that novel,” we might say, and in one sense that statement can be accurate. But in another sense it is clearly inaccurate, for actually we do not enter the book so much as the book enters us; the words enter our eyes in the form of squiggles on a page which are transformed into words, sentences, paragraphs, and meaningful concepts in our brains, in our imaginations, where scenes and characters are given “a local habitation and a name.” Thus, when we “get into” a book, we are actually “getting into” our own mental conceptions that have been produced by the book, which, incidentally, explains why so often readers are dissatisfied with cinematic or television adaptations of literary works. Having read Anna Karenina or Wuthering Heights, we develop our own idea of what Anna Karenina and Heathcliff are like, and no actress or actor, even Greta Garbo or Laurence Olivier, can replace our ideas. (Digression: Teachers may think that they are helping their students by showing film versions of works that they have read for class. Unless the work being read is a play, which was meant to be performed, they are not. Students should be encouraged to think of books as books, not as the rough material out of which films, often bad films, are made.) The author of a book creates, but the reader is called upon to recreate. The reader cannot function without the book, but neither can the book function without the reader. The book is the point where minds meet for a kind of communication that can take place nowhere else; and when we read a work, whether by an ancient poet like Homer or a contemporary novelist like Kazuo Ishiguro, we are encountering a living mind, a mind that can give us a different perspective on the world we inhabit right now. (For an entertaining account of how reading works and of the relationship between books and readers, see Jasper Fforde’s series of novels about Thursday Next, beginning with The Eyre Affair.)

In fact, though it may seem a trite thing to say, writers are close observers of the world who are capable of communicating their visions, and the more perspectives we have to draw on, the better able we should be to make sense of our lives. In these terms, it makes no difference whether we are reading a Homeric poem, a twelfth-century Japanese novel like The Tale of Genji, or a novel by Dickens. The more different perspectives we get, the better. And it must be emphasized that we read such works not only to be well-rounded (whatever that means) or to be “educated” or for antiquarian interest. We read them because they have something to do with us, with our lives. Whatever culture produced them, whatever the gender or race or religion of their authors, they relate to us as human beings; and all of us can use as many insights into being human as we can get. Reading is not separate from experience. It is itself a kind of experience, and while we may not have the time or the opportunity or it may be physically impossible for us to experience certain things in the world, we can experience them through sensitive reading. So literature allows us to broaden our experiences, though it is up to us to make use of those experiences.

Reading also forces us to focus our thoughts. The world around us is so full of stimuli that we are easily distracted. Unless we are involved in a crisis that demands our full attention, we flit from subject to subject. But when we read a book, even a book that has a large number of characters and covers many years, the story and the writing help us to focus, to think about what they show us in a concentrated manner. In this sense, too, a book is like a world. When I hold a book, I often feel that I have in my hand another world that I can enter and that will help me to understand the everyday world that I inhabit. Though it may sound funny, some of my best friends live in books, and no matter how frequently I visit them, each time I learn more about them and about myself. And if what I have just said is true about narratives, it is even more intensely true about poetry, which is often a more intense form of literary creation.

And, to return to the point with which I began, reading literature in this way is enjoyable. Unfortunately, teachers, with the best of intentions, too often forget that literature is intended to be enjoyed. No writers (and this may be hard to believe) ever set out to bore an audience, nor, with relatively few exceptions, have they intended to be obscure. Thomas Hardy did not write his novels so that students could mine them for vocabulary words, and Jane Austen did not write hers so that students could be quizzed on chapter two. Though such activities may have their practical value, they surely serve to make the study of literature something less than enjoyable. If those activities are what constitute the study of literature, why would anyone ever want to study it?

A real indication of how unsuccessful so much teaching of literature is can be found in the frequency with which students speak of “dissecting” poems, stories, plays, and novels. What other kinds of things do they dissect? Dead things. So students are learning, whether overtly or by implication, that literature is dead, like the frogs in their biology classes. What a tragedy for them (as well as for the frogs). Literature may not literally be alive, but we can infuse it with life when we approach it correctly. Approaching it correctly means not relying on reading quizzes, not mining it for vocabulary words, and not forcing students to engage in searches for what is commonly called “symbolism.” Allow students to engage with the work, to take it apart very delicately—word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, verse by verse—so that they can examine those parts and then put them back together so that they can understand the work more deeply. Doing so will allow students to go beyond paraphrase but will not require that they get lost in the symbol hunting that they hate.

Another hindrance to the study of literature is the practice of making students memorize rules and terms before they have a chance to get excited about literature, as though the only way to enjoy music would be to memorize chord progressions. I do what I do now, that is, I teach English, because of a junior high school English teacher who made me so excited about literature that I wanted to learn the rules and terms; and when I learned them, of course, the literature became even more meaningful and exciting. The job of the schools should be to encourage that excitement. Help the students enjoy what they are learning and they are more likely to learn. Of course, that is an easy statement to make and a hard one to accomplish. Best-sellers are often fairly simple, while works that I categorize, in what may seem like an elitist way, as “literature” tend to be more difficult. Why would we voluntarily undertake something difficult, especially when there are so many easy alternatives available? In fact, we often do difficult things because we enjoy them. Golf may be difficult, but apparently a lot of people like to play the game. So again, as Horace said, enjoyment is fundamental to our experience. In addition, some things pay off more if we work hard at them.

And what exactly is so enjoyable about reading literature? This is a difficult question for me to answer. I happen to love literature, so that it seems self-evident to me that reading literature is enjoyable (just as to someone who loves fishing, the joy of fishing is self-evident). I enjoy all the things that I have just finished describing as the valuable aspects of literature, the chance to meet interesting characters and to visit interesting places, the chance to use my imagination and to think about things that might otherwise escape my notice, the chance to see the world from perspectives that I would otherwise not have. In fact, some of these perspectives I would rather not have. I would rather see Oedipus, for example, than be Oedipus. At the same time, I will never be a woman or an African-American or a medieval man, but reading sensitively can help me see the world from those and other perspectives. These are exciting possibilities, and they are enjoyable, though perhaps difficult.

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