Literature – What’s It Good For?

February 1, 2012

Literature has never been my thing.  Ever.

I clearly remember the fight I had with my 5th grade teacher over my lack of desire to take a book out on library day.  I explained I had no interest in fiction.  She was bent on proving me wrong.  If only I found the ‘right’ book(s), I would adore fiction.  Doesn’t everyone?

Well, no.

I’m sure I would have been more inclined to check out a book or two if we had been encouraged, or even allowed, to consider the non-fiction section.  But it seems that part was reserved for serious research… you know, that thing you’d do only when your teacher assigned you one of those serious reports.   No, both the librarian and teachers knew that kids like fiction and so they herded us into those rows with enthusiasm.

That particular misconception carried on straight through high school.   My English teacher had a cabinet full of books.  You picked one of his books and read a certain number pages each week.  You had to pick from his cabinet because those were the books he’d read… and how else could he quiz you on the book so he’d know if you’d actually read it?!

“Don’t you have any non-fiction books?”

He’d look at me with that little smirk.  I’ve no doubt he thought I was simply trying to get out of reading all together.  He suggested book after book from his collection.   If only I could find the ‘right’ book….

So I’ve been quite happy that my children will not suffer my fate.  The are ‘normal’.   They enjoy fiction, they read because they want to.   They choose their own books, they’ve read and enjoyed several classics among their many choices.  Yay!  I don’t have to torture my kids with literature!

But wait.  Here comes the principal (aka my dear husband) and his school-indoctrined ideas.

I’ve been assigning famous works of literature from the time periods we’re looking at in US History.  I usually ask the girls to read several chapters.  If they hate the book, they don’t have to finish.  Again, I don’t see the point of torturing them with literature.  Some they like, some they do not.  Let’s face it, there’s enough literature out there that you can find options in any time period that you find enjoyable (ok, except for someone like me, but then we’ve already been over that).

For our current time period, I put Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle on the listMy husband handles our virtual library, loaning ebooks from the library and putting them on the girls’ electronic readers.  Upon seeing this book listed, he commented that he hadn’t read that till he was older (by only a year or two at most) and, the kicker for me, that they could not read that book without an adult reviewing it with them, pointing out all the  appropriate themes and symbolism and political ramifications.  It’s a book that must be properly analyzed in order to be read at all.

Now understand, my distaste for this whole analysis of literature goes back a long, long way. And I feel that it’s not solely based on my underlying dislike of fiction pieces in general.  I just think that it’s the right of the reader to decide what, if any, messages, themes, symbolism or politics they wish to draw out of the text the author has presented.   What use is a piece of literature that *requires* a third-party to analyze and explain what they think is the author’s point or purpose?

I get that there are people who love literature.  There’s even a subset who love to study, analyze and discuss these works in-depth.  Heck, my own kids may very well turn out to be among them.   More power to them.

But the idea that a piece of literature is only as good as the guide that explains it to you?  I don’t think so.  Literature is just another art form which can and should be experienced for its own sake, with no obligation on the part of the one who experiences it to make more of it than they wish to.

Go ahead, tell me I’m wrong.  I’m sure my literature loving family and friends will. 😛

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2 Responses to “Literature – What’s It Good For?”

  1. Cammie Says:

    OH, you are soooo baiting me! =)
    Well, of course, I disagree. But I think we will just need to agree to disagree because I sincerely doubt that anything I say will change your mind ;). You are a reader-centered critic of art and I am a text-centered critic. I believe a text can never mean what it never meant, and you believe the reader creates the meaning. But here’s my ‘two cents’ anyway just because you baited me…
    1. From my experience, reading literature is a fuller and richer experience when it is analyzed (fiction AND non-fiction). I realize you haven’t had the same experience, but I can think of tons of books I’ve read that I didn’t like the first time I read them, but as I learned more about the author or the time period or the style the author used, the book became one of my favorites. (Huck Finn and Scarlet Letter are two examples). I know this experience is mostly due to my personality and preferences, but I think you should give your girls a chance with this to see if they enjoy it too – send them down to me! =)
    2. All subjects tie together, so reading a book thoroughly helps understanding in all subjects, not just literary analysis.
    3. Analyzing literature creates critical thinking skills. It’s not about some genius third person telling you what the book is about.. I always tell my students that they may never have to read or understand Hawthorne again after my class, but the analytical skills they acquire will be essential regardless of what line of work they go into.
    4. Reading literature with adult guidance also helps to create discernment. Words have power. Where are the words that your girls are reading taking them? Do they have the discernment to recognize the philosophies, worldviews, opinions, etc that are being promoted by the author. It’s not just about similes and metaphors, especially as they get older.
    4. I agree with the principal (aka Chris) =) about The Jungle. Without any guidance, I don’t the girls will read past the second chapter. If they do they may be disgusted and depressed and that’s about it. (they may become vegetarians and/or socialists – lol) Sinclair stated that the intent of his novel was to expose the corruption of the meat packing industry and to promote socialism (although he wouldn’t confess this at first). The Jungle is definitely not a novel that anyone would read for pleasure, but it does contain some valuable history lessons. It’s also a good bridge to discussing the news media, propaganda (advertising) etc in today’s age.
    5. I do agree that literature can/should be enjoyed for it’s own sake, but I also believe that reading should be active.
    OK – I’ll stop now. I’m sure your eyes have already rolled in the back of your head 😉 and my children are begging for dinner. LOL =) Talk to you later.

  2. Carol Says:

    And there ya have it. Straight from the English teacher sis 🙂


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