The short answer to the question “why read literature?” derives from Sir Philip Sidney’s apology (not ‘I’m sorry’ but rather ‘defense’), of “posey,” or poetry, in which he asserts that the artful imitation of life in literature of all sorts (yes, I am extrapolating) exists to both “delight and teach.” Sidney, of course, got his notions from the ancients. Ah, the Renaissance. proving once again that there’s nothing new under the sun. Literature — you know, the GOOD stuff — can delight us? AND it will contain meaningful bits that I should learn!?!? How long has THIS been going on?!?!? Well, since before, you know, the ancients…
Still, convincing high school seniors trapped in a required British Lit course to read Anglo-Saxon epics (but who wouldn’t want to read Beowulf?) Shakespearean drama, or Victorian novels is a challenge. Why? Take a peek:
Competing, though in no particular order, for their investment of time, energy and interest: the football, soccer baseball, softball and la crosse fields, basketball and volleyball courts, balance beams, hockey rinks, swimming pools. And that’s just a tip of the HSAA sanctioned ice berg. Intramural and club sport clamors too. Then of course performance art — drama, choral groups, show choir, band, orchestra, strings and jazz. DANCE! Artistic endeavors including photography, graphic design, digital media and film and the more traditional pottery, sculpture, and the wonders of acrylics, oils, watercolor, lead and on… Family obligations, the dating (EEEK!) world, movies, and shopping and learning to drive and equestrian interests. Don’t forget an after school job, perhaps some time in church, the social media responsibilities (I mean, they have to tweet too!), service projects (remember they’re building a resume!) and well, every kid deserves a nap some time. And, for the record, I know that every student does not participate in every one of the aforementioned activities. But every student I know participates in at least one and more often two and three. And some, in many.
You’ll notice that nowhere in the competition for their valuable time did I include ‘academics.’ With the vast array of opportunities, obligations and passionate interests that we with our own over-full lives suggest students must themselves possess, where can I, with my own ‘defense of posey,’ find a way in? How can I help them uncover the wonders of literature? You know, the kind that invites and even demands that they sit down and truly encounter words written on a real page?
Today, I have no real answer to that question. I can only set the table, and call them for dinner. On the menu for my Brit Lit kids, after an appetizer of C.S. Lewis, I offer them this:
After establishing a bit of grounding, or foundation, for the biblical worldview through reading Mere Christianity, we need to turn our attention to the rich and overwhelming array of literary thought coming forth from what we now call the United Kingdom. Primarily, we engage works by English authors with an occasional nod to an Irishman or a Scot. We read poetry, drama, the occasional essay, and more frequently, novels. The novel as English (British) form takes recognizable shape in the early 18th century, and has been modified, strengthened, refined and goodness!, surely perfected by now. The literature we will encounter reflects the rich and overwhelming (yes, I’m repeating myself) advance of England’s history – the philosophies and ideologies, the beliefs and attitudes, the rises and falls, the monarchs, the serfs, the working class, the aristocracy, the landscapes, the cities, the plagues, the wars, the sun, the moon, the very air they breathed… Life. Played out in words.
First, to commit to READING the world that poets, dramatists, novelists and essayists create as a way of reflecting the world in which they lived. To be students engaged with words. To be students of the Word.
Second, to consider the beliefs and views of that long-ago world. To see how their beliefs impacted ours. To discover how their attitudes differ sharply from ours. To see that, though different, we are much the same. To see that, though we are much the same, we are startlingly different. To strengthen our own beliefs in response to those who might oppose us. To strengthen our own beliefs because we share ‘common ground’ with those who have gone before.
Third, to share what we discover. To strengthen our own facility with language. To gain confidence in our own voice. To intentionally use words with other thinkers/readers in mind. To write and speak well, because it matters that we do so.
Simply – we are here to read, discuss, write, engage. That’s our job. We read history. We live history. We read literature, which is history, enhanced. We encounter the world, through the world of words.
So, the next time you find yourself encountering an English teacher, give her a hug. And the next time you find yourself face-to-face with a high school student, ask what he’s reading. Remind him that good words, used well, always do their office. They delight. They teach. They change the world. Literature does that. Every time.