Why Literature Matters In 2013

Written by Donna

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January 29, 2013

Image from Grammarly at Facebook

Image from Grammarly at Facebook

I was recently reading an interview with actor Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey) in which he was asked about New Year’s resolutions, and I found his reply interesting:

“I’ve had the same resolutions for about 20 years, which is to read The Complete Works of Charles Dickens, and I’m only on about book No. 3.  I’m a terrible reader, which is a great shame because literature is the lifeblood of everything, really, in terms of inspiration and nourishment of the soul.”

I have to admit I’ve had a similar resolution over the years—not to read Dickens, who is not my favorite author by a long shot—but to read my way through Dante.  I’ve never made it, even though I have good translations.  They sit on a shelf and mock me annually.  Someday.

But more to the point of this post, what struck me about that quote was Bonneville’s assertion that literature “is the lifeblood of everything, really, in terms of inspiration and nourishment of the soul.”

I have the dreaded B.A. in English.  And even 30 years ago, people asked “But what will you do with it?”  The answer back then was “anything I want.”  And I have done a lot of interesting things: I’ve taught, I’ve worked as a technical writer, I’ve done a little (very little) ad writing and copy editing.  I’ve written countless resumes for people, published poems, written two unpublished novels (just to see if I could, you know) and been paid to give my opinions on books.  And that’s just me. I know plenty of people with the same degree who do a variety of fascinating jobs—several of them own very successful businesses, for example, many are active in politics, and one develops and writes video games.  My co-conspirator here wrangles spreadsheets for her day job.  Another friend has an executive position in a bank.  A young woman I know is now teaching English at a Chinese school, and now that her Mandarin has improved significantly, she and her husband also run a small translating business on the side.  Really, the possibilities are endless.

So when people want to know if there’s really any value to studying literature these days, my kneejerk response is “of course.”  You learn things as an English major that may not be quite the same as, say, what you’d learn in an engineering class, but you come out with quite a useful little toolkit.  Studying literature teaches you about people, for one thing—you learn how to analyze motivations and fears and hopes.  You also learn to think critically, to connect-the-dots, to figure things out.  You learn how to research, to argue, to defend your thoughts, to read between the lines, to synthesize information. You also write a lot of papers when you study literature—a LOT of papers—so you also learn how to write effectively and coherently, which is a most useful skill.  Altogether, you come out knowing a lot about Dickens and Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf’s writing, sure, but you know way more than that.

You have a fundamental grasp of the human experience through the ages.  Literature spans so many other disciplines–the social sciences, history, philosophy, theology, etc.—that you come out prepared for anything life throws at you.  And that includes learning any special skill that you might need in a job, which is important because people will insist on putting some sort of valuation on a degree.  So let’s do that.  Literature–and I’d argue, the humanities in general–is a valuable field of study that does provide you with a skill set that translates into earning a living.  Because you don’t just learn about books, you learn how to research, to synthesize, to present an effective argument, to think.  And if you know how to think, you are a few steps from being able to do almost anything (I feel compelled to qualify that statement with “almost” because truthfully, you probably won’t know how to build a race car or a nuclear reactor, although you’d have the skills to try and figure it out if you were so inclined).

We live in a world now that is vastly different from the one I was launched into 30 years ago when I graduated with my BA in English.  Back then, personal computers were vastly expensive and rarely owned by the average person, CDs were a year or two away from being common, and digital media was completely unheard of–TVs were still analog, and people still wrote actual handwritten letters instead of logging into Facebook or streaming their favorite programs on Netflix.  Research was not a mouse click away, but required hours spent in libraries with books and microfilm.  But we have all this lovely technology today precisely because people still need to think creatively.  And it will continue to evolve for precisely that reason.

There’s a reason colleges and universities require general education courses across a wide variety of disciplines.  Being exposed to other areas of study outside one’s own declared field of interests enhances learning.  When I taught, I had engineering students who actually resented being forced to take a course in technical writing by their departments.  They seemed to think they’d have no use for such a thing.  I had science majors who didn’t understand why they were asked to take a basic literature course—what does MacBeth or Animal Farm have to do Chemistry or Biology, they’d argue?

I probably don’t need to point out that my answer to that question was “everything.”  But I always made them figure it out.  That was pretty much the whole point, after all.

I know I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but I think that studying literature is even more valuable today than ever.  We live in a world where people change jobs all the time, where versatility is required.  We also live in a world where advances in technology and science happen so rapidly that processing those developments requires a nimble mind capable of understanding such things.  And not to get all political on you, but we also live in a society where, I would argue, the ability to think and reason for oneself is vital—otherwise, our personal philosophies become parroted talking points, not strongly held convictions.

And finally, it was my personal pleasure to introduce works of fiction to people who’d seldom read a book prior to taking my literature class.  Many of them went on to investigate other works by an author who’d struck a chord with them, and I had more than one 18 year old say, “I never realized that books had all these ideas in them!”  Indeed they do—from Shakespeare to Stephen King to romance novels and mystery fiction, they do indeed have ideas in them that make the reader think, to consider, to discard or to keep.  Turning someone into a lifelong reader was one of the greatest pleasures I ever got when teaching, because I knew I was also turning them into a lifelong thinker.  And honestly, as long as we have people who can think, we’ll be okay.

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