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When we love literature, and reading comes easily to us, we tend to assume that the purpose for studying novels is self-evident. We’d be missing out on the romance of Jane Eyre, the brilliance of Achebe, and the wit of Twain. Besides, how could one object to reading stories as a required activity for school? We may as well get credit for eating cookies or binge-watching our favorite shows.
But not all students are eager to crack open that musty Gothic work, especially when there are friends to text and movies to watch at the touch of a screen. Besides, some students find reading to be laborious, a limitation that isn’t necessarily their fault. Because reluctant readers tend to be the exception and not the rule, English teachers need to establish a clear case for the benefits of novel reading. (They should also provide tools to help students get the most out of what they read, but that’s a different discussion.) At the beginning of the school year, all students should understand the “why” of literature:
Literature is art. Just as paint and musical notes are mediums used for deep and beautiful expression, so are words. Some people are good with clay, and they make sculptures. Others have skill with the paintbrush, or with sound, and they produce paintings and music. And then some are gifted with words, and they write our literature. English class gives an opportunity to study this art.
Literature is culture. Education, including the studying of novels in English class, is the passing of a culture group’s shared foundation of knowledge and ideas on to the next generation. This knowledge is hard won—we took hundreds of years to get where we are in Western culture. It is important that a people share the same background of rich knowledge and pass it on.
A shared education and values makes communication with one another much easier. When we have a common culture, we can express complex ideas in just a few words, and the listener will understand. How much more efficient and productive that is than looking at one another with blank stares. Ignoring or losing our literary heritage would be a great loss indeed. We’d have to start from scratch. Plus, inheriting common cultural riches gives us equal opportunities; we all start from the same body of knowledge and ideas. This is real social justice.
Literature is history. When we as a country don’t immerse ourselves in the way past people thought, spoke, and made art, we are lost and shallow. We operate in a vacuum. We build our opinions and collective decision-making on thin air. We are ignoring the voices of wise, experienced people or even of sadly mistaken people, and trying to go it alone. What a loss. Our history textbooks piece together past events and attempt to identify causes from available evidence; writers produce literature right in the thick of historical events. They make history immediate, real, and personal.
Literature gives depth and wisdom. Literature helps us see the world through many points of view, and when we can look through others’ eyes, we grow wiser without having to experience whatever it was that the writer went through. It’s like a shortcut to enrichment. We become deeper thinkers who understand others and the world better. Reading and reflecting on novels will help us as writers, readers, professionals, workers, and even spouses and parents.
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