Why Study Novels in English Class?

 

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.

What should be added to this list?

Published in Literature
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  1. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Nicely done, Ms. Sawwatdeeka.  I’m a former literature professor who has become, over the years, a bit cynical about the teaching of novels—and in fact literature in general.  Your post reminded me of why I got into literature in the first place.   Thanks.

    Kent

    • #1
  2. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    KentForrester (View Comment):
    Nicely done, Ms. Sawwatdeeka. I’m a former literature professor who has become, over the years, a bit cynical about the teaching of novels—and in fact literature in general. Your post reminded me of why I got into literature in the first place. Thanks.

    Kent

    Although studying literature has both personal and societal benefits, it’s difficult to articulate these to students. Even I question it, sometimes, when I read books by literature enthusiasts about studying novels, or I hear about authors’ inflated sense of their works’ importance. It’s great to love our stories and everything, but we can get a bit overboard.

    • #2
  3. Kay of MT Inactive
    Kay of MT
    @KayofMT

    I read my history books as if they were novels, finish them in a week and be bored for the rest of the year. Go to the library and find another history book, read, repeat….

    • #3
  4. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    anonymous (View Comment):

    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.

    But a great deal of historical fiction (for example, Shakespeare’s historical plays) were written long after the events they purport to chronicle and don’t necessarily have much to do with what really happened. They may actually distort our perception of historical events due to the persuasiveness of their narrative.

    First of all, thank you for helping me see my missing word.

    Second, even Shakespeare’s fanciful rendering can help us understand the values and experiences of the period during which he wrote. If I think about it, I’m sure there are examples of novels contemporaneous with the history they describe. Maybe I’m more saying that these works help us understand historical thoughts and attitudes than exact descriptions of the past.

    Third, you’ve made me think some more about the value of novels. I’ve thought about the made-up aspect, too. The writer can have her characters do whatever she wants them to. Their actions don’t necessarily encapsulate true human behavior, but they often do.

    For example, I was reminded again today about popular modern novels about the African American experience (such as The Color Purple), where wretched, desperately awful things happen to the main character, often perpetrated by those closest to her. Now, is a nightmarish childhood (in contrast with one with its share of challenges, but also good things) a fair representation of the black experience?  I think it’s an unnecessarily distorted depiction.

    A skilled author does draw life and human behavior realistically, and is purposeful in telling a good story. It’s as if an artist draws a landscape that doesn’t actually exist anywhere in the world, yet it is real in the sense that it is composed of real elements.

    And I agree that novel-reading can be merely entertaining as well–almost. The reader is deriving more benefit and perspective from it than he realizes.

    • #4
  5. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    Nothing.  It’s perfect.

    • #5
  6. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    sawatdeeka (View Comment):

    anonymous (View Comment):

    But a great deal of historical fiction (for example, Shakespeare’s historical plays) were written long after the events they purport to chronicle and don’t necessarily have much to do with what really happened. They may actually distort our perception of historical events due to the persuasiveness of their narrative.

    …Second, even Shakespeare’s fanciful rendering can help us understand the values and experiences of the period during which he wrote. If I think about it, I’m sure there are examples of novels contemporaneous with the history they describe. Maybe I’m more saying that these works help us understand historical thoughts and attitudes than exact descriptions of the past.

     

    It’s true that Shakespeare contains anachronisms (I had one prof who had us hunt for them), but I agree the plays are important for other reasons. The themes are universal and have stood the test of time. One thing I worry about in higher learning these days is the PC desire to stop teaching all dead white European males only because they’re white males. There was a petition at Yale to get them to stop teaching Shakespeare. I don’t know how that turned out. What writers do they want them to teach? Should they dredge around the bottom of the barrel to find writers to teach just because they were women? Hello? If they’d actually been good, we’d have heard of them. We are turning into the Eloi.

    • #6
  7. GFHandle Member
    GFHandle
    @GFHandle

    Looking back, I think I wanted to major in literature because I wanted to be like some people I admired, who were serious readers and writers.  Also, I had some favorite authors before college. But they were NOT great, except maybe classics of minor genre, like Robert Benchley.

    So, what to add. One argument that meant a lot to me was: in reading a “classic” you are avoiding the dross of the best sellers, the flash in the pans, etc. and reading something that at least has stood the test of time and been approved by many, many competent readers. There’s a good chance it has enduring value.  Alas, today that is elitism or whiteness or something.

    I like the way Hillsdale seems to do it. From what I have heard, students there get a coherent idea of the telos of their education because of the direct invocation of the Greco-Roman-Judao-Christian civilization out of which the United States was born. Failure to know of that Civilization leaves you open to any demagogue who comes around. So read to avoid being a schmoo. And then, for each individual work, the Hillsdale teachers are willing to be old fashioned and actually approach as to a source of WISDOM. They ask, “What can we learn from….”? This would seem hopelessly essentialist, fraught with dangers of becoming self-referential, etc. and just plain unsophisticated to most of the high flown critics I’ve encountered. But, it is the oldest reason to read. The MSA (Main Stream Academy ™) instead seems to want to say that education is to make you a good SJW, avoiding doing the readings on “What is Justice?”

    I used to ask my students at a community college if any of them had poetry hanging on the walls or on the refrigerator at home. When they did it, it was invariably something inspirational or humorous. And when last I sneaked in Kipling’s “If” some young men who had not been too involved came up to tell me how much they liked that poem.

    Of course, now that I am retired I find myself listening to cozy mysteries rather than the more weighty tome. Because, come right down to it we read because it is fun. And if it is not fun, then we work at it. I am for both. Work at it to widen your fun.

    One more argument: all mammals can walk, sit, eat, have sex, fear, etc. Only humans write essays analyzing novels! When you do that–no matter how well–you are fully engaged with your own humanity.

    • #7
  8. GFHandle Member
    GFHandle
    @GFHandle

    anonymous (View Comment):
    When I was compelled to read “great novels” in high school, I thought it tedious and a waste of time (Thomas Hardyhello?)…..Why should I expect to learn more from reading made-up stories about people who never existed than from histories of things that really happened, even admitting that the histories we read are filtered through the minds of those who wrote them?

    I think you contradict yourself. You say you read for pleasure, but I think you read for knowledge.  For pure pleasure, Hardy is a safe bet. Check out Under the Greenwood Tree, though in the end tastes vary. Or how about this novel-in-embryo by Hardy for a guide to effective remonstrance:

    You did not come,
    And marching Time drew on, and wore me numb.
    Yet less for loss of your dear presence there
    Than that I thus found lacking in your make
    That high compassion which can overbear
    Reluctance for pure lovingkindness’ sake
    Grieved I, when, as the hope-hour stroked its sum,
    You did not come.

    You love not me,
    And love alone can lend you loyalty;
    -I know and knew it. But, unto the store
    Of human deeds divine in all but name,
    Was it not worth a little hour or more
    To add yet this: Once you, a woman, came
    To soothe a time-torn man; even though it be
    You love not me.

    Or this one to remind folks that anti-imperialism is not a matter or race but of class and interest groups. Poor Hodge and his family back in Wessex,

    poet Thomas Hardy

    They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
    Uncoffined — just as found:
    His landmark is a kopje-crest
    That breaks the veldt around:
    And foreign constellations west
    Each night above his mound.

    Young Hodge the drummer never knew —
    Fresh from his Wessex home —
    The meaning of the broad Karoo,
    The Bush, the dusty loam,
    And why uprose to nightly view
    Strange stars amid the gloam.

    Yet portion of that unknown plain
    Will Hodge for ever be;
    His homely Northern breast and brain
    Grow to some Southern tree,
    And strange-eyed constellations reign
    His stars eternally.

    • #8
  9. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    I’m in favor of it, of course.


    This is our Group Writing on the theme of “Novel.” We still have three slots available this month, if you think you have something to say about long works of fiction or anything else that is novel. You can sign up here.

    • #9
  10. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    My daughter teaches English at a community college. She made an interesting point to her students about why they should study literature. Paraphrasing, “It gives students a chance to imagine experiences without actually having them.”

    • #10
  11. Whistle Pig Member
    Whistle Pig
    @

    anonymous (View Comment):
    I read lots of novels, but I do so for entertainment, like watching fictional movies. When I was compelled to read “great novels” in high school, I thought it tedious and a waste of time (Thomas Hardyhello?).

    Why should I expect to learn more from reading made-up stories about people who never existed than from histories of things that really happened, even admitting that the histories we read are filtered through the minds of those who wrote them?

    Our history textbooks piece together past events and attempt identify causes from available evidence; writers produce literature right in the thick of historical events. They make history immediate, real, and personal.

    But a great deal of historical fiction (for example, Shakespeare’s historical plays) was written long after the events they purport to chronicle and don’t necessarily have much to do with what really happened. They may actually distort our perception of historical events due to the persuasiveness of their narrative.

    A friend of mine has the same view, though to a greater extreme – he only reads nonfiction, especially history.  I’ve told him that history is the compilation of true facts to tell lies, and literature is the weaving of untrue facts to try to find truth.  If you think that the point of Shakespeare’s historical plays was to convey an accurate understanding of history, I think you’ve missed the point.  Shakespeare is great, not because his history is good, but because he uncovers truths about what it means to be human.  And that is worth reading.

    • #11
  12. Whistle Pig Member
    Whistle Pig
    @

    Arahant (View Comment):
    I’m in favor of it, of course.


    This is our Group Writing on the theme of “Novel.” We still have three slots available this month, if you think you have something to say about long works of fiction or anything else that is novel. You can sign up here.

    Your link is bad.

    • #12
  13. I. M. Fine Coolidge
    I. M. Fine
    @IMFine

    sawatdeeka (View Comment):
    Second, even Shakespeare’s fanciful rendering can help us understand the values and experiences of the period during which he wrote. If I think about it, I’m sure there are examples of novels contemporaneous with the history they describe. Maybe I’m more saying that these works help us understand historical thoughts and attitudes than exact descriptions of the past.

    Great post, Sawatdeeka; and you did a wonderful job of articulating all the reasons I still read novels.

    Just a quick word about Shakespeare; of course he never wrote those plays to be read (let alone analyzed to death) in English classes. They were only meant to be seen…and on popular stages. My guess is he would be very puzzled today to see the classes bearing his name in the English (rather than the Theatre) departments!

    • #13
  14. Trink Coolidge
    Trink
    @Trink

    GFHandle (View Comment):
    One argument that meant a lot to me was: in reading a “classic” you are avoiding the dross of the best sellers, the flash in the pans, etc. and reading something that at least has stood the test of time and been approved by many, many competent readers. There’s a good chance it has enduring value. Alas, today that is elitism or whiteness or something.

    I was trying to get this into a comment.   Thank you.   More eloquent and spot on that I would have managed.

    • #14
  15. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Whistle Pig (View Comment):
    Your link is bad.

    It wasn’t bad, just incorrect. ;^D

    • #15
  16. Whistle Pig Member
    Whistle Pig
    @

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Whistle Pig (View Comment):
    Your link is bad.

    It wasn’t bad, just incorrect. ;^D

    Excuse me for missing the difference.  If I were to do something incorrect, my clients would roll up a newspaper and say “bad lawyer, bad lawyer.”  Unless you intended to lead people in circles, but that isn’t something I would expect outside the PIT.

    • #16
  17. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Whistle Pig (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Whistle Pig (View Comment):
    Your link is bad.

    It wasn’t bad, just incorrect. ;^D

    Excuse me for missing the difference. If I were to do something incorrect, my clients would roll up a newspaper and say “bad lawyer, bad lawyer.” Unless you intended to lead people in circles, but that isn’t something I would expect outside the PIT.

    It is corrected now. Thank you for spotting it and bringing it to my attention.

    • #17
  18. The Cloaked Gaijin Member
    The Cloaked Gaijin
    @TheCloakedGaijin

    Literature is pain and punishment — for those of us who did not or do not enjoy it.

    I grew up in the age when color 24-hour cable television was just taking off.  Who would want to look at a book when this is available?  Don’t I have enough schoolwork to do already?

    I can hardly remember anyone in my secondary school years carrying around a book for fun.  There were too many other demands.  Even the smartest kids were too busy trying to perfect the best scores in their current classes.  I noticed one time that the two or three boys who I remember carrying a book around for pleasure in middle school soon transferred out of small town America.

    I think it’s a big problem with boys and arguably the dominance of female English teachers.  I would have enjoyed reading some history or science I think, but I never had much interest in reading fiction.  Why am I supposed to learn about fake stuff?  That never made sense to me.  I might as well be learning about astrology or that weird phrenology head bump science.

    Get boys to read — something.  If you hate reading, more forced reading is just going to make you hate the activity of reading even more, but you can’t afford to hate reading.  It’s required in life.  It would be like having a school teach boys to hate breathing, eating, or sleeping.

    Finally, many of us, especially boys do not have a deep poetic, spiritual, or empathic side.  This point really can’t be overemphasized.  It would be like a group of color-blind students being asked to comment on the book of thrilling red-green artwork — for an entire year.

    I think students should simply take solid classes that interest them.  A person can learn more about literature, math, history, foreign languages, art, computers, physical education, or some other class later, assuming that the schools have not forced the student to hate such a subject.

    • #18
  19. Layla Inactive
    Layla
    @Layla

    anonymous (View Comment):
    But a great deal of historical fiction (for example, Shakespeare’s historical plays) was written long after the events they purport to chronicle and don’t necessarily have much to do with what really happened. They may actually distort our perception of historical events due to the persuasiveness of their narrative

     

    I teach a Plutarch and Shakespeare year in which we read, among other bits, Plutarch’s Coriolanus and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus together. Plutarch was, of course, Shakespeare’s source for that play. So it’s so much fun to discuss the differences between the two. When Shakespeare departs from his source material, we speculate about why. Total blast. :)

    • #19
  20. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    Ain’t no more core curriculum. You used to have to study a lot of stuff you had no interest in just to get your union card. That’s why many a student got interested in stuff they previously had no interest in. Used to be known as a liberal education.

    • #20
  21. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    I appreciate the solid suggestions for the list. Here’s another one I just thought of that might need to be articulated: We study for enjoyment. It may not be enjoyment that comes right away, but we reap it after some work, time, and attention. We learn to recognize the technical and artistic skill of the authors, the surprise symbols and other features hidden away like Easter eggs, their unique voices still speaking to us across the centuries, their sense of humor that can extract a chuckle from us, so far removed from their time. I remember starting Dickens’ Great Expectations and realizing that Dickens was trying to be funny–and he was. He made me laugh.

    • #21
  22. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    The Cloaked Gaijin (View Comment):
    I think it’s a big problem with boys and arguably the dominance of female English teachers. I would have enjoyed reading some history or science I think, but I never had much interest in reading fiction. Why am I supposed to learn about fake stuff? That never made sense to me. I might as well be learning about astrology or that weird phrenology head bump science.

    Get boys to read — something. If you hate reading, more forced reading is just going to make you hate the activity of reading even more, but you can’t afford to hate reading. It’s required in life. It would be like having a school teach boys to hate breathing, eating, or sleeping.

    Well, here’s the thing. I’m not sure  one can be solidly educated without some background in great books. At the very least, a student should know the prominent authors, their important works, their contribution to the development of literature, their historical eras, and quotes or excerpts from their work.  A sampling of excerpts might be enough, or a reading of authors’ shorter works. A well-rounded person should be well acquainted with what our culture has produced.

    Outstanding literary works are part of our shared education, and form the basis of our conversation, even when we don’t realize it. Common expressions take on new depth when we automatically associate them with their origins: Down the rabbit hole. Not in Kansas anymore. Bah, humbug. Big Brother.  Catch-22. And so on.

    Literature does not have to be taught in an unpleasant manner, even if taught by a female teacher . . .  It can be a fascinating tour of the past and of the work extraordinary minds, with plenty of nonfiction resources to support it.  There are a lot of academic subjects, too, that aren’t fun, but whose value may become more apparent later in life.  I think that where possible, the teacher could introduce an element of choice. For example, students could choose from a long list of works when studying particular eras.

    • #22
  23. Hypatia Inactive
    Hypatia
    @Hypatia

    I don’t get it.  What except novels would you study in English class?

    Very depressing, this thread. Many people seem to have turned their backs on literature.

    I always thought, everybody would like the great novels, the basics of the canon, if they read them and were told they would like them–as opposed to being told the would not  like them, they were too hard, so here: just read this excerpt.  Or worse, a graded down version.

    I have always wondered, though, speaking of Hardy, why in high schools they read The Mayor of Casterbridge. The eponymous character is totally incomprehensible.  Why not something more fun?

    • #23
  24. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    The Cloaked Gaijin (View Comment):
    Finally, many of us, especially boys do not have a deep poetic, spiritual, or empathic side. This point really can’t be overemphasized. It would be like a group of color-blind students being asked to comment on the book of thrilling red-green artwork — for an entire year.

    I don’t believe you need to have a deep poetic,  spiritual, or empathetic side to appreciate literature. I honestly don’t have that myself. I knew people who majored in lit. who did–or at least saw themselves that way–but it wasn’t my thing.  I enjoyed the fact that I was having to read stories for school, and actually liked the long nonfiction introductions describing the historical contexts and bios of the authors.  Story writing assignments were fun, but I showed little literary potential. Poetry writing was a technical exercise that often poked fun of overrated, self-important material. Like Whitman.  There was always an interesting angle to take. I didn’t need a poetic soul to like it.

    • #24
  25. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Hypatia (View Comment):
    What except novels would you study in English class?

    Plays. poetry, short fiction, epics, Spenser’s Fairie Queen. There is plenty that is not a novel in English literature.

    • #25
  26. Hypatia Inactive
    Hypatia
    @Hypatia

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Hypatia (View Comment):
    What except novels would you study in English class?

    Plays. poetry, short fiction, epics, Spenser’s Fairie Queen. There is plenty that is not a novel in English literature.

    Was that what she meant?  Cuz people went on to discuss Shakespeare.

    • #26
  27. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    Hypatia (View Comment):
    as opposed to being told the would not like them, they were too hard, so here: just read this excerpt. Or worse, a graded down version.

    Never a graded down version. No–just no.  Not recommending that.

    I also do not recommend telling students that they will not like something, or that the material is too hard. That’s not why I think they should get an excerpt. I say, give them excerpts in a situation where they feel resistant to literature (say, in a vocational track English class, or remediation English, where there are lots of struggling readers, or they are boys with low expectations of a female-taught English class who are about to embark on unit with those late 1700’s guys who can be dry and dense).

    Excerpts are a tool, and I say they can be a minimum entry into that world. The idea is to give strong historical context, familiarity with the figures,  and then a taste of the important works. From this knowledge base, a student is more likely to make sense of literature encountered later on. And then, this sampling can create a hunger to go explore the work. He/she might see the entire work on display handsomely bound in the bookstore and think, Hey that actually sounded interesting, and I wanted to read it. Now’s my chance.  With this seemingly shallow survey of literature, the teacher is actually creating curiousity in the students, leaving them wanting more. This is a powerful teaching technique.

     

    • #27
  28. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Hypatia (View Comment):
    Cuz people went on to discuss Shakespeare.

    What novel did Shakespeare write?

    • #28
  29. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    Hypatia (View Comment):
    Very depressing, this thread. Many people seem to have turned their backs on literature.

    Reviewing the thread again, there are plenty of strongly pro-literature ones, too.  My claim is that English teachers may need to do a better job of communicating a rationale for studying novels/literature, with so much else competing for students’ attention. They need to know why this sometimes demanding study is worth their time.

    • #29
  30. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    anonymous (View Comment):
    Most of the earlier long-form literary heritage is epic poetry and, if this engineer can show his scales, is tedious.

    A lot of the tedium was mnemonic. If you had to memorize it to recite it, because paper-like products were expensive, it helped to have repeated patterns.

    • #30
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