Why We Should Study Literature, Part I: How the Study of Literature is “Practical”

Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival. ~C. S. Lewis

Going into my senior year of college, I was very excited to produce my very first “significant” piece of academic research (at least, as significant as an undergraduate senior thesis can ever hope to be, which is in fact not very much at all). In earnest, I went through all the necessary steps to get my project off the ground—borrowing a carrel for the semester, cheerfully checking out about a fourth of the library’s collection on James Joyce and roughly all of their collection on Lu Xun, shoving all of these savory books into my newly-acquired carrel locker, and finally getting a professor to sign on as the advisor to my thesis. There was only one problem—every time I sat down at my carrel, chai tea and slice of pumpkin bread from Olin Café  in hand, ready to type away on the open laptop staring me in the face, a little voice in the back of my head kept repeating, “What use does this have to people? Why do you want to invest so much time and research on an abstract academic problem that nobody outside of your tiny field will ever care about? How is this useful?”

I know this is because part of me fears that I will embark on a project that will never be of use to anybody, and thus will be a great waste of my time, something that I view as extremely valuable in light of how little of it I have. My fear stems from that notorious question that certain liberal arts majors dread which rears its ugly head everywhere from the lunch table to a grandmother’s funeral (yes, this topic was actually broached to me even as we supposedly sat “quietly paying our respects” in front of her coffin. No ground is sacred anymore). “Why study insert-non-practical-major-here? What will that do for the world?”

Why, indeed, did I choose to study literature? Is this a selfish whim, something along the lines of “I’m interested in the abstract, irrelevant, academic problems of literature, and the world with all of its very real issues can go to Hell for all I care?”  I don’t think so. In fact, I think the existence of literature and the existence of a plethora of problems in our world are actually very closely related. But when friends and family alike have asked me this question in the past, I have always answered with heavy-handed, melodramatic calls for the continuation of the pursuance of truths otherwise incomprehensible in the modern age—my bloated pomposity didn’t convince anybody, including myself. This reflection is mostly an informal attempt to once and for all prove to myself (and maybe, just maybe, a few others as well) that the study of literature in the modern world is still and always will be relevant, using concrete arguments rather than the wishy-washy mumbo-jumbo I have up to the present employed.

First, let me dispel the most basic misconception of this issue, the idea that a literature degree, or indeed any humanities degree, is impractical and will not lead to a stable career after graduation. This is simply not true. I will concede one point, however, which puts humanities majors at a slight disadvantage—most grads with humanities degrees will end up in administrative-level jobs, which may prove frustrating. It is true, in other words, that students who choose to major in the humanities as undergrads should expect to attend grad school or at least some kind of certification program after college in order to obtain the necessary qualifications to have rewarding careers.

Given that caveat, however, becoming a humanities major can lead to a wealth of fascinating and diverse career opportunities. It is true that somebody who majored in philosophy could not become an engineer or a doctor, at least not without undergoing years of additional school and enduring the significant expenses associated with that. But majoring in the humanities helps students to develop their critical thinking, writing, and analysis skills, making them candidates for a wide variety of careers outside of the super-specialized areas of engineering and medicine. Some examples include human resource workers, social workers, community developers and organizers, government workers in branches such as the Department of State or Department of Education, financial analysts, writers and journalists, and leaders of non-profit organizations.

A second, no-brainer option for humanities majors is academia, which as a field is as alive as it ever has been. As long as colleges and universities are around and they continue to teach the humanities, there will be a demand for professors in these subjects, and of course deans and presidents as well, university administrative positions that are fairly impossible to obtain without first having served as a professor for a number of years. For those of you who are thinking, “Academia is for people who aren’t qualified for real jobs,” contrary to popular opinion, professors do sometimes make contributions to society that shake its foundations and bring about some kind of change in societal perspectives on certain issues, therefore making it a career of some “practical” value; look at any list of the most significant non-fiction works of the twentieth century, and you will see that many of them were written by professors. Another “practical” element of the professorial career in some cases is the translation into English of never-before-translated works, which makes possible the study of global literature and, hopefully, an atmosphere of increased tolerance and understanding of the practices and beliefs of other cultures. [1] Another possible career choice for humanities majors is to become secondary and elementary school teachers and principals, for all of which, as with professors, there will be a demand as long as this country has secondary and elementary school systems in place.

Meanwhile, it is also a myth that other kinds of non-professional degrees are more marketable than humanities degrees. The reality is that subjects like biology, physics, chemistry and mathematics are no more practical than literature is. All of these fields study theoretical concepts, like literature does, and only when they are applied to fields like medicine, engineering, and economics do they serve any “practical” purpose. As far as I can tell, all of the “practical” fields in the world basically boil down to Medicine, which impacts people’s health, Law, which impacts how legal systems operate, Business, which impacts the world’s finances, and Engineering, a broad field responsible for everything from how this world harvests energy sources to the production of its gadgets.[2] All of these practical fields are built on theoretical fields, like math and physics, but math and physics themselves are not practical. One could see how if the world was stripped of all of its “non-practical” people, besides being less colorful, interesting, and cultural, it would be void of all of the abstract concepts that allow the above “practical” fields to exist! In short, many math and science majors in undergrad need additional education and training before they can take on high-level careers, just like literature majors.

Of course, the main argument that I presume would be made in response is that while math, physics, anthropology, and other fields at least have practical applications, the same cannot be said for literature specifically. This is simply not true. In fact, literature is such a broad field that information gleaned from the study of it can be applied to a wide variety of “practical” uses. Literature has been used variously throughout history as a mechanism for advocating social change and progress, increasing awareness of economic, political, and cultural problems, providing clues into the human psyche (useful for fields such as psychology, within the general umbrella of medicine) and so on. In other words, conclusions drawn from the study of literature have been applicable in many fields time and time again in all kinds of different contexts. Do you remember how in high school, you were always required to have a “reach for significance” clause in the conclusion paragraphs of your essays in English class? Did you always feel like that was possibly the hardest, most difficult portion of the essay to come up with interesting, appropriate, and worthwhile content for? Well, like it or not, that “reach for signifance” is the key to why the study of literature always has been, still is, and hopefully always will be important.[3]

I think we have to start by asking, “Why do people write fiction and poetry?” When you think about it, this is a pretty intriguing question, and it makes sense that in exploring the reason that this kind of stuff exists in the first place, we may be able to come to some sort of reasonable answer for why the study of it is important. The existence of literature is almost as old as the invention of writing itself; consider that The Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance, is thought by most historians to date from somewhere between 2750 and 2500 BC. This would seem to indicate that for most of mankind’s existence, people have had some kind of need for the production and consumption of literature. The most obvious reason for this is that the creation of poetry and fiction creates an outlet for those who have, one could say, overactive imaginations.  These kinds of people have minds that are full of ideas and characters that they want to get down on paper and bring to life.
But were this the only reason that people wrote literature, I don’t think it would justify anybody devoting his or her life to the study of fiction and/or poetry. If literature was simply the product of certain people’s imaginations, nothing more and nothing less, than though it would certainly be suitable as a way to entertain and divert people in their leisure time (a role that much “popular” literature today still fills), it would not merit an entire academic field to be devoted to the study of it.

One possible reason people might write literature is to shed light to the rest of the world on the nature of a particular culture. For example, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart vividly portrays the lifestyles of the members of a certain Nigerian tribe at the end of the nineteenth century. V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River and J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace are other examples of novels that create a clear, detailed portrait of different areas and peoples of Africa. Thus, when people read these works, they hopefully will begin to glean a somewhat deeper understanding of the culture in question than they might have before possessed. One could say that increased mutual cultural understanding, then, is one benefit of literature. It is a means to understanding the society and thought of another people—for what is literature “of merit” at its most basic level anyway, if not the record of the trend of thought of a certain culture? I myself, in applications for various scholarships and other activities, often cite increased cultural understanding between China and the U.S. as a key reason that the study of Chinese literature is important. However, although this is a positive side effect of reading literature, I am not convinced that it is the only reason, or even the main reason, for why authors produce literature. Rather, I think there is a third, more important reason for why literature “of merit” has always been and will continue to be not only relevant but crucial to our modern society, a reason that without doubt justifies the study of it.

Almost anybody would agree that the majority of literature “of merit” is written for some purpose, whether it be to prove a point or to indicate a fault in society. However, why choose fiction as the mode by which to express this dissatisfaction? If Lu Xun wanted to point out the necessity of 1920s-era China’s need to change its narrow-minded society driven by outdated traditions, why didn’t he just write an essay?[4] If James Joyce wanted to point out Ireland’s stagnated culture, why didn’t he do something about it?…For instance, he easily could have gone into politics, with a focus on culture, and worked steadily to pass incentives that would work toward enriching Ireland’s literary and artistic culture. Why instead force people to slave their lives away quibbling over what he might possibly have meant in works of literature like Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake? I have actually just introduced two important, separate problems above—why don’t authors do something about solving the crisis they see, rather than just write about it, and if they really want to write about the problem they see, why choose such a cryptic mode of expression, rather than directly conveying their argument in the form of an essay?

There are several quite practical reasons for why an author might choose to write about a problem, rather than take action to solve it. First, it is certainly not the case that just because an author writes literature about a problem, he is not actively involved in other fields of his life in trying to resolve it. Lu Xun, as well as most of the modernist English writers, were all engaged in various societies and publications that pushed for the changes that they felt were most necessary in their societies. Secondly, it is often the case that society is not yet ripe for the author’s criticism; in other words, if the author criticizes his or her society directly, he or she is putting him or herself in grave danger. This is very common, obviously, in literature of oppressive regimes. Third, some authors don’t take direct action because the content they want to comment on isn’t a specific call for change to a society—it’s more like a comment on a certain aspect of the human existence. For example, James Agee’s beautifully-crafted A Death in the Family describes in great detail the exact behavior and thoughts of every member of a family one night as they react to a phone call they have received announcing that the principal breadwinner of the family (the husband and father) has been killed in a car accident. Obviously, there is nothing Agee can do to prevent death, but he wants to reflect this tidbit of life back to us so that we can understand this very typical, very human process (to which we can all relate) in a clearer light than we would have otherwise—some literature helps us to better understand our own humanity. It is for this reason that some authors, who meet none of the above criteria, still choose to write fiction rather than, or in addition to, taking direct action—they are hoping to lay bare before a large audience its own, often grim humanity. George Orwell’s novels are a good example of this.

“Reflect” is a very interesting word to use in the context of literature, and it leads me to my next point—why literature is sometimes the chosen mode of writing about ideas, rather than the more direct and, some might say, more practical essay. I would like to preface the remainder (and most important point) of this reflection by making it clear that the theory I am about to present is not original. Or rather, these thoughts are my own, but in my reading I have found that many before me have already had the same thoughts, and been able to convey them much better than my mediocre talent will be able to (yes, apparently my thoughts are actually that unoriginal).

J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace seems to me like a sweeping comment on the modern state of South Africa, the emotional aftermath of rape, the relationship of humans and animals, and maybe even at some level (I argued in an essay my first year of college) a comment on embracing our humanity, including the part, as unappealing as it is to many, about having to grow old and die. Coetzee could never have possibly written an essay that incorporated all of these topics—it would have been a badly-written work! Essays need to be specifically focused on one argument. Expand one into something that incorporates as diverse an array of topics as Coetzee’s novel does, and all of a sudden it has switched from an intelligent essay to a rant.

Instead, the novel that he writes is able to tie several layers of meaning together in a story that resembles our own lives. Indeed, besides being able to touch upon many topics, literature has that ability to mimic our actual lives that no straightforward essay can duplicate. This gives literature an added meaning that an essay can never have—good literature doesn’t simply argue a point or illustrate an example, but also reflects our own life back at us just as it is, like a painting with words, in all of its complexity and layers of meaning. This is because it is in layers of meaning that we live—at one level, there is our rather uninteresting day-to-day life. But within our thoughts every day pass a multitude of ideas and memories, some good, some bad, some worth pursuing and some better forgotten as soon as they’re thought of. And occasionally—when we have a particular thought, or a particular set of circumstances that have some kind of special meaning to trigger something in an individual—Proust’s madeleine—we feel that we have come a little closer to the edge of some kind of larger meaning, which we seem to feel must exist, but which we can’t grasp in its entirety; this struggle is represented beautifully in T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock.” The “stream-of-consciousness” style of writing is another brilliant example of technique created both to replicate something about ordinary life and to add an element of something to it that actually makes it surpass and transcend that which it is trying to replicate. In doing so, it aids readers in glimpsing some deeper perspective or broader dimension of this aspect of ordinary life than they necessarily would have discovered on their own.  Again, it’s the idea of art mimicking life—if done well, the meaning of a work of literature will have a much deeper impact than an essay because it goes deeper, past our intellects and into our souls, if I can be allowed to speak poetically. We read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” or perhaps that magnificent work of Virginia Woolf’s, To the Lighthouse, and we see ourselves.

So there are two reasons for why authors write stories and poems, as opposed to nonfiction works like essays: the ability to touch upon a vast number of topics at once and the ability to hit harder because we see reflections of ourselves in literature. A lot of literature wants to present us and our societies in a way that the author feels we may not have been able to see if not guided in that direction. Of course, this opens up the ground for literature as a means of propaganda, which is why the reader should never be passive, instead actively absorbing the literature he or she is engaged in and making informed decisions about to what extent he or she agrees with the point the author is trying to make. In general, though, I don’t like to think of the author as a propagandist (although in some cases it’s hard to avoid such a conclusion)—rather, he or she is putting his or her thoughts out there in the hopes that he or she may be able to convince and inspire others who may have similar feelings, but have not given voice to them.

Often, this reflection is also a call for change, as I’ve already touched upon. V.S. Naipaul’s novel A Bend in the River brings to light that author’s perception of the problem of a current identity crisis widespread throughout Africa, brought on by years of colonialism and then sudden independence. Much literature is like this—rather than setting out to point out and critique political or economic methods, such as theorists in other fields do, authors set out to critique systems of and ruptures in thinking[5]. This may also help to explain why some authors don’t take more proactive roles—the problems they see are not the kind that can be easily fixed by any kind of political or economic action. Many activists who call for the world’s problems, such as environmental pollution and destruction, political harmony, etc. to change often lament the lack of an awareness of these problems in people’s mindsets. It is precisely these mindsets that literature works to influence, and as such, literature has been used as a tool to both control populations and disrupt conventional manners of thinking as long as it has existed as an art. The kind of thinking and beliefs of a society represent its foundation. Literature aims to both reflect and alter this foundation, therefore changing the entire structure of the society it targets. After all, it is imagined that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the final straw that led to the American Civil War, and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle led to major revisions of the United States laws regarding food production in factories in the early twentieth century. Who says that literature has no relevancy to the real world? On the contrary, it has everything to do with the world it represents.[6]

“Okay,” you will concede now, “I guess I can understand that the study of literature is in some capacity important for understanding and changing the underpinnings of our society. However, since fewer and fewer people actually read literature today, doesn’t that make it a dying art, and one not worth studying?” I will respond to this objection by pointing out that authors continue to publish books every day, people continue to buy them, and bookstores continue to thrive. Even though there is a very real risk that print books may become obsolete in my lifetime (as sad as this is), it doesn’t seem very likely at all that people will cease to read. I continue to meet people every day who can readily cite this book or that book that changed their lives and/or their perspectives. Therefore, the rumor that I often hear murmured everywhere that “kids just don’t read as much these days” appears to be untrue. On the contrary, I find it a remarkable testament to the power of literature that in the days of video games, the internet, television, and countless other fast-paced modes of diversion, people everywhere still continue to read stories. And as long as there are readers for the literature that authors write, it is worthwhile to pursue the study of literature.

And so my argument draws to a close. I have only touched upon one tiny aspect of how literature is useful, calling upon its potential to incite social change and to alter systems and frameworks of thinking, ignoring all of the other various ways in which the study of literature is worthwhile. My paper is indeed very informal, more like a discussion, which is why I am calling it a “reflection” rather than an “essay.”  It is directed at all of the naysayers out there who are convinced that the study of literature is a waste of time and brings nothing positive to our society, an argument that I am sick and tired of hearing. In particular, it is dedicated to that distant relative of mine who in front of my grandmother’s coffin sneered that being a professor was the only thing I’d ever be good for (as though being a professor is equivalent to being some kind of slimy underground worm). If this reflection can convince even one nonbeliever that the study of literature may, after all, carry some legitimacy as a field, then it will not have been a waste of my time to write it.[7]





[1] That is, if a “practical” purpose can be defined as one which will have some kind of noticeable, tangible impact on the world.

[2] There are, in fact, two more categories of “practical” careers I can think of. One is the extremely broad category of careers that don’t require college degrees (carpenters, electricians, laborers, etc.); I do not address this category because it is irrelevant to my point, which is to say that literature is no more non-practical than other non-professional college degrees. The second category is that of teachers, who have an obviously practical purpose. This category is somewhat different from those mentioned above in that one can become a teacher without a professional degree, hence why I argued above that it is possible to have a non-professional degree that will nonetheless lead to a stable, “practical” career.

[3] You probably have realized by now that the focus of this reflection is on some ways in which the study of literature is relevant and applicable to everyday situations, and how it might ultimately influence one life or many; in effect, as the title indicates, it discusses how literature is “practical.” One could go further and argue why the study of literature is in and of itself important, without even considering its practical applications, but to my mind at least, this is a higher-level argument, and one that merits an entire paper to be devoted to it. Although I will eventually write a second part to this essay that will tackle that argument, I would like to note that it has already been done, in a more well-written manner than I could ever produce, by such critics as Gilles Deleuze and such authors as Oscar Wilde. If you’re interested, there is a plethora of reading material written by them and others available on the subject.

[4] In fact, he did write essays—over a hundred of them—but he also wrote a dozen or so short stories and novellas, for which he is equally if not more well-known

[5] I deliberately use the term “thinking” rather than “thought” here, since “thought” is often associated with specific ideologies (e.g. feminist thought, Marxist thought, Catholic thought). However, the “thinking” I refer to indicates the actual patterns of our thoughts and how and why we perceive things in various ways and come to believe certain ideas.

[6] I am focusing on literature that is used as a vehicle of change. Obviously, plenty of literature is published that attempts to argue for maintaining the status quo as well. Even though it is not arguing for change, per se, this sort of literature is still attempting to influence the thinking, or at least the thoughts, of its readership.

[7] I am not ignoring the fact that there are authors out there who have realized the above functions of literature and have actually set out to defy the role that much literature plays. For instance, certain surrealist, decadent, and absurdist works of literature seem far too abstract and/or abstruse to have been meant for the purposes of literature outlined above, and yet they are still studied today. I will address the use of studying such highly artistic forms of literature in the second part of this essay, about why the study of literature in and of itself is important.