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A Student's Guide to Literature

  • by R. V. Young

Introductory Note: The Paradox of Literature

Literature is paradoxical both in its nature and in its effect upon readers. Although letters inscribed upon a page or the words of a spoken utterance are the media of a literary work, the work itself is neither the ink and paper nor the oral performance. A successful poem or story compels our attention and seizes us with a sense of its reality, even while we know that it is essentially (even when based upon historical fact) something made up—a fiction. The most memorable works of literature are charged with significance and cry out for understanding, reflection, interpretation; but this meaning carries most conviction insofar as it is not explicit—not paraded with banners flying and trumpets blaring. “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us,” says John Keats.1 The role of literature in society is similarly equivocal. It can be explained simply as entertainment or recreation; men and women have always told stories and sung songs to amuse themselves, to pass the time, to lighten the burdens of “real life.” At the same time, literature has assumed a central place in education and the transmission of culture throughout the history of Western civilization, contributing a sense of communal identity and shaping both individual and social understanding of human experience. The intimate part played by literature in cultural tradition has been a source of alarm to moralists and reformers from Plato to the media critics and multiculturalists of our own day.

Literature, then, must be approached both with caution and abandon. A primary purpose of the study of literature is to learn to read critically, to maintain reserve and distance in the face of an engaging, even beguiling, object. And yet, like any work of art—a symphony, for example, or a painting—a novel or an epic yields up its secrets only to a reader who yields himself to its power. It is for this reason that literary study is a humane or humanistic discipline, not an exact or empirical science. The ideal researcher in the physical sciences, insofar as he sticks rigorously to science, will be absolutely objective in the sense that his humanity will exert no influence on his methods or conclusions. Even a medical researcher will be interested in the human body only as a biological mechanism, not as the outward manifestation of a person with a soul. The literary scholar must of course be objective in the sense that he is disinterested; he must not have an individual or personal stake in the interpretation. And yet, although the critic’s fate is not the fate of King Lear, the critic’s human sympathy with the plight of that tragic protagonist is part of his critical response to the play as literature. The human compassion of the cancer researcher for the victims of the disease, while it may be an important motive, is not part of his research, not an element in his science as such. The natural sciences, therefore, provide a very poor model for scholarship in the humanities. To be sure, there are factual, “scientific” elements of great importance to inquiry in all the arts: a knowledge of Elizabethan stagecraft and printshop practices can furnish a good deal of useful information about how Hamlet was seen by contemporaries and how the text was preserved, but such facts will never explain why the play is still moving and important. Works of literature are not natural phenomena or specimens; they are rather part of the cultural fabric of the world that we all inhabit. A poet, says William Wordsworth, “is a man speaking to men.”2 We cannot approach poets and poems as an entomologist approaches ants and ant hills.

Literature is vast and complex; a “guide” of this length can only be a modest sketch of the subject. My purpose is to provide a brief description of the nature and purpose of literature and some sense of how it may be best approached. I shall say something about the concept of literary kinds or genres, and something about how literature has developed along with the development of Western civilization. I shall not discuss the literature of other civilizations, principally because I lack the competence, but also because I suspect that literature in the sense that I use the term, although no longer unique to the West, is a uniquely Western idea. Finally, I shall list some of the indispensable works of our tradition, of which every educated person should have some knowledge, as well as lesser works that are also very fine or very influential and well worth perusal. The list will not be comprehensive: this essay is intended not only for undergraduate literature majors, but for students of any age who wish to have a knowledge of literature commensurate with a baccalaureate degree. Nothing that I can say will take the place of simply reading these works, but I hope that this Guide will enable students to plan their own literary education, or fill in the gaps of such awareness as they possess, with confidence and prudence.

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