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Why We Study Literature – What Literature Has to Teach

13 Apr

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In the teaching profession there is a common axiom that one of the best ways you can help your kids deal with their current problems is by having them read good literature about kids their age and the decisions they have to make. This is the purview of the Newbery Metal. The award is given each year “to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” Books like S. E. Hinton‘s, The Outsiders, or Avi’s, Crispin: the Cross of Lead, are about young people who have to make difficult decisions as they examine how they make those decisions and what the ramifications are once they have made them.

If that is true of young people would we expect the same for adults; would we benefit from a literary examination of people who have to face significant challenges? One thing we know about reading is that it allows us to suspend what we know to be true while we examine things from the point of view of the characters in a story. In a sense we can take part in the French Revolution, the First World War, the discovery of radioactivity, or the exploration of the moons of Jupiter. For a time we can actually be Robes Pierre, Sargent York, Madame Curie or HAL the paranoid computer, and in doing so we can look at the world through another set of eyes, see things from a different point of view. If the old Native American saying of “You can’t know a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes” is true, then this is certainly a great way to wear a great many different kinds of shoe leather, or no leather at all.

Some people see this as escapism, much like going to a movie or watching television. You turn your brain off for a few hours while you live vicariously in another place and time, but good literature is so much more than that. Great writings that have stood the test of time deal with profound issues and have the potential to change us in subtle and dramatic ways. Abraham Lincoln said that the book Sufferings in Africa, by James Riley, was one of the books that had affected him most and had a marked impact on his views of slavery. (In the book, Captain Riley and his men shipwreck of the coast of Africa and are subsequently sold as slaves. All of the men suffer horribly and only Riley and one other man survive the ordeal.) During his presidency, Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s book, Uncle Tom‘s Cabin, captured the hearts of the people and helped fuel the fire for abolition.

We know that people who travel a great deal are considered “cosmopolitan.” They are seen as worldly wise and have a very broad view of people and the world in general. Few of us have the budgets to do that kind of travel, but great literature allows us to get much of that experience for little more than the late fees at the local library. While “traveling” this way may be somewhat limited, it has its advantages. We can read Anna Leonowens, Anna and the King of Siam, to see what life was like for a school teacher who left the comforts of England to teach in the royal courts of what is now Thailand and then read Anna’s Real Life King of Siam, where we get a very different view of one of the most successful kings to stand up against the colonial onslaught, and learn that he was far more civilized and modern than Anna credits. In other words, we can choose to see a story from multiple viewpoints for a more through understanding of the forces and characters at play, something that is very difficult to do even if you do have a substantial travel budget.

So how do we choose between great literature and the simply prosaic? Type in “great literature list” into your favorite search engine and you will find a great many lists and, perhaps surprisingly, they will not all be the same. Some will be decidedly skewed in one direction or another, while others will try to be a bit more magnanimous.

Several years ago I began a personal journey to try to read as many of the world’s great works of literature as possible. I started, don’t ask me why, with Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Since it was written by a Russian, I assumed it would be dark, foreboding and enigmatic. It was none of those, and what surprised me even more was how this scholarly Russian novelist wrote with such tremendous passion. His characters had great depth making it easy to identify with a number of them. Plus his use of literary devices was masterful. In the story a dashing young military officer enters a race with his horse where he pushes the horse beyond its abilities causing it to suffer a broken back. The story of the horse then becomes a metaphor for the relationship he has with the beautiful young woman who has fallen in love with him as his arrogance and cruelty leads her toward her own destruction. Powerful stuff from from a country we normally think of as staid and rigorous with their emotions.

What will surprise you? What new adventures await you in the books that have entertained and educated so many over the years? There is a whole world of literature out there that spans the length of history and the width of our galaxy and beyond. Pick up some great literature and give it a try, you may find that everything you read after is compared to that great work. It is adventure with hair-raising thrills, great insights and fabulous entertainment value all on a shoestring budget. Many of the great minds before you have chosen this path, why not add your name to the list?

Author

Lee Reed has had the privilege of being raised on three different continents and still travels a good deal. He has read many of the world’s great literary works to add to his knowledge and understanding of the human condition. As a result he loves to write on a great variety of subjects including literature, the arts, culture, travel and his profession, teaching. Recently he published a book on his experiences as a substitute teacher. You can find more about that book here: http://www.amazon.com/The-Substitute-Teachers-Toolkit-ebook/dp/B00C7GNSUE

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Posted by on April 13, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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