“Here’s what my son says.”
This is a question I’ve been wanting to answer for a long time but has caught me with much hesitation. I was afraid that I may impose my views on younger generations. Hence, I requested my son, Fort, to attempt to answer the question. Here is what he has to say.
Literature was that minor subject you had to pass in university – unless of course you were a lit major. It entailed leafing through pages of established canon, and scraping by, while listening to your professor, usually with a scarf and/or glasses, endlessly discussing his or her interpretation of so-and-so’s work. It wouldn’t be shocking to hear snoring mark the first hour, nor would you be hard-pressed to hear moans of impatience signal the minutes as they pass. It would then take a few minutes for your professor to arrive at a point, inciting participation from the class, and punctuating tangential, incorrect, or not-quite-right answers with: “You’re getting there… but how about (insert another student’s name)?” or “You’re so close! You’re ninety-nine percent there.”; never satisfied until someone arrives at the state-sanctioned illumination.
Academic methods of literary analysis, where a single interpretation of a work is favored, did not sit well with me; I felt that it detaches the reader from having a personal connection with the work, something very important in sustaining attention and interest in reading. Eschewing a myriad of other interpretations for the sake of uniformity blunts a more holistic, fully-realized analysis of an author’s work. Besides, things have different meanings to different people; and encouraging these thoughts encourages participation, a tall hurdle whose conquest every professor hankers for.
Digesting literature is also often a question of skill as much as it is a question of aptitude. It is difficult for most people to get into the right headspace or rhythm to read, say, Shakespeare; an even more serendipitous one for Flaubert, the author of Madame Bovary, or Dostoevsky, the author of the Brothers Karamazov. Not only is the language itself a barrier, with ancient authors often using esoteric, archaic, and rarely-used words, translations vary considerably in length, syntax, and cadence. Reading anything worthwhile – that is, those works in our established canon of “masterpieces”—is an arduous task whose yoke people frequently relinquish.
Despite all these, I have come to realize that there are two things that could help people like me enjoy these literary triumphs.
Context. Every book was written against the backdrop of a specific slice of time, historically, culturally, and socially. These works are frequently dotted with references that should be used as grappling hooks to pique interest and as lens to scrutinize the work with. For example, reading about the Napoleonic Wars while simultaneously dissecting Tolstoy’s War and Peace elevates the trivial meanderings of the Russian aristocracy about power and marriage to conversations about pivotal moments in World History. And isn’t it infinitely more interesting to get a history lesson from counts and princesses, than from that damp, moldy book you borrowed from the library?
Open-mindedness. It’s important for teachers, students, and consumers of literature to foster an environment of free thinking. This is not to say that blatantly false or offensive interpretations remain uncorrected. This is to make sure that a multi-faceted book, poem, or novella, acquires an equally multi-faceted perusal deserving of its greatness. Some teachers often fall into the trap of thinking that a disagreeable explanation from a student precludes hours of intense study and equates to haphazard skimming of the material. I suggest offering a bit of leeway to account for the inherent differences in context that readers have among themselves. Not everyone has experienced the abject poverty of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment or has ever met someone as snarky as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice or Emma Woodhouse in Emma. It is as much the job of the professor as it is the student’s, to enliven and contextualize literature to someone foreign to it.
Literature is a way of preserving numerous lives past, and codifying a plethora of scenarios to come. Literature speaks to us in ways that people around us can’t, and lets us participate in the difficult conversations we can’t have with others. It increases our knowledge and helps us see everything in its proper context, preventing rash judgments and blind obedience. It is therefore important, especially for young, impressionable minds, to indulge in this privilege as much as they can, talk about it, and encourage its dissection; as ignorance, no matter how blissfully you bask in it, isn’t as condonable as it used to be.