Thoughts on Literature


What is good literature? 


Good literature presents the most profound ideas of a culture in the most effective and beautiful way. An effective book, letter, essay, play, poem, short story, or novel is one in which the reader feels what the author wants him or her to feel, thinks what the author wants him or her to think, and does what the author wants him or her to do. 


How do we know what an author is trying to express? 


There’s a school of thought that says, “we cannot know what someone else was thinking, especially if he or she is dead.”  The reasons for which Jane Austen wrote Persuasion will always be lost to us.  We can only construct our own meaning out of the text we have.  The study of literature is therefore the study of us, constructing meanings for ourselves.  Literature is linked to sociology: we study ourselves as a group, thinking and building meaning. There’s a related school of thought that says “only use the text to understand the text.”  Since the text is the only source of meaning, speculations about things outside the text cannot help us to understand the text.


There’s another school of thought that says “we have a common understanding of words, and an author writes to be understood.  So if Jane Austen wrote about "dancing," she didn’t mean "donkeys."  We can look for the meanings the author built into the text.  We may live in a different time or place than the author, and so we need the historical context of the society and culture in which the author wrote to understand the way the author thought and felt about the words he or she used.  In this school, literature is linked to history:  we use historical detection to bolster our literary analysis.


As a teacher, I am a follower of the second school, but I acknowledge the salutary warnings and strength of the first school.  We can have relative, but not final, certainty about authorial meaning.  And the meanings we find and discuss ought to be primarily derived from what is in the text.


How do we discuss literature? 


Each field has its own jargon, its own specialized words.  Wine tasters learn words like woody, fruity, dry, etc., and how to apply them.  They become experts in the pleasures of eating and drinking.  Plumbers learn about pipes, duct tape and flanges, and how to build and fix the systems that keep us warm, healthy and clean.  Astronomers learn about black holes, gravity, and the Doppler red-shift effect. They learn the way the universe works and how it may have developed.  Literary critics learn about style and structure, point of view and tone. Included in their working vocabulary are words like plot, setting, characterization, metaphor, symbolism, and grammar


So why learn the specialized words from this field?  If we are not all going to be literary critics, then why learn how to talk about literature?  There are three reasons.


First, all of us are going to read and write.  We may not fix pipes or look through telescopes, but we will express ourselves through writing and talk about the meanings of what we read.  If we are persuaded to act by what we read, then a community, a college, a country, should invest in sophisticated readers. 


This first point bears some explanation. Reading and writing were once extraordinary skills. In ancient times, most people in most areas of the world were illiterate. Rulers made no investment in public education. Those few who learned, mastered rhetoric, the skill of persuading hearers by logic, emotion and ethics. The best educated were generally an elite group or slaves who taught the elite and managed their businesses. Scribes, specialists trained in reading and writing, held an essential role of society from at least 3000 BC to about 1450 AD. After 1450, when the newly invented printing press made a flood of pamphlets, tracts broadsides and books available, many ordinary people in Europe learned to read and write. An international public forum on religious, scientific and political issues began to grow. Rhetorical skills were applied to writing as well as speaking. Nonetheless, educated people were still a minority. By the mid-1830s, some 400 years after the printing press changed Europe, the newly invented steam-driven rotary press brought the price of many American newspapers down to one penny. After this second printing innovation, the majority of people in Western countries had access to daily news. People could and did read to get information about the world at large. Skill in writing persuasively and the ability to read a text critically were the hallmarks of an educated and politically responsible person.

Reading and writing are now the most ordinary of skills, and most governments believe (at least nominally) in basic public education. However, the public forums available have expanded beyond print, and the skills required to negotiate them have changed. The first half of the 20th century saw the advent of film, radio and TV. Now the competing media of information and persuasion are visual stories, the spoken word, and reading. While many of us still read, consuming newspapers, magazines, books and information on the Internet, most of us also get our news and beliefs from the radio or TV. Contemporary citizens in all parts of the world need mastery of multiple media: the techniques of speaking (rhetoric), the vocabulary and techniques of formal writing, and the vocabulary and techniques of visual representation in film. While skill in interpreting visuals has attained new importance, in no way has skill in reading and writing been replaced -- reading and writing undergirds most of what we do on a daily basis.

There is a second reason to tackle the terms of literature.  The mastery of any field helps with the mastery of every other field. We find that it is easier to learn a second language after we have learned a first:  we have learned how to learn.  Moreover, literature is a relatively general specialization; its students learn words that help them talk about thinking.  The process of learning literature’s specialized vocabulary helps a student to be ready to focus on any another field. 


There’s a final reason to learn literature.  Entering the eyes, heart, feelings, thoughts and experience of someone else allows us more understanding of others.  Exposure to luminous beauty of someone’s writing may inspire us to awe and wonder at the goodness in the world and the talent of other writers.  I’m cautious on this point:  I’ve nearly run off the highway looking at a bright silver moon, so I’m appreciatively wary of powerful beauty.  Still, I admit the claim:  there are a lot of talented people in the world, and exposure to them through literature has been good.


A student can approach literature on a number of levels:  looking for beauty, talent and wonder in literature, or learning how to be a sophisticated reader, or learning how to master a field in preparation for mastering other fields. Students can respond to literature as a would a sociologist, watching the class build meanings out of a text, or as a historical detective might, uncovering the meanings built in to the work.  In this class we will attempt all of these approaches, with perhaps varying degrees of success. 


Welcome to English II.