Aug 27, 2012

Why study literature?

I'm not referring to mainstream hits, "popular" lit, or anything marketing itself as "lit" of any sort. The question was raised in a brief Q&A posted in the New York Times.

My response would be: to gain insights into how other individuals, cultures, and ultimately yourself, think. If you want to find out how you think, study literature. Psychology courses are too limited in their focus and too formulaic for that. They only take you so far. I've learned much more about human behavior from undergrad-level literature courses than from graduate-level seminars in social psychology (and countless JPSP articles).

Stephen Greenblatt tells it better: "Literature is the most astonishing technological means that humans have created, and now practiced for thousands of years, to capture experience. For me the thrill of literature involves entering into the life worlds of others. I’m from a particular, constricted place in time, and I suddenly am part of a huge world — other times, other places, other inner lives that I otherwise would have no access to."
He also notes an increasing demand among students for survey-type literature courses. The humanities might be dying, their degrees might mean little in the marketplace, but their content continues to be relevant to those seeking an education alongside marketable skills.