Why Do We Read Literature?
First, Literature Defined:
"The creation of literature is a uniquely human activity, born of man's timeless desire to understand, express, and finally share experiences."
Literature is "a concrete artifact -- a story, a poem, or a play"
"The medium of translation, of course, is language, the written and spoken word."
"When we speak of literature, however, we have in mind a special kind of language that differs from the ordinary discourse with which we conduct our daily affairs. The term literature . . . refers to language that is deliberately structured in such a way as to have identifiable artistic qualities."
1.) Reading for Vicarious Escape
Literature can offer "exciting narratives that can be read uncritically simply because they allow us to escape the problems and responsibilities of our everyday lives and to participate, however briefly, in a world of experience that differs radically from our own."
Examples: the spy or detective story; science fiction; historical novels
We read for the fun of it.
"Many works of literature, classics as well as paperback pulps, survive precisely because they succeed in temporarily detaching us from time and place and transporting us to some imaginary world that we otherwise would never know."
"Although some people tend to regard such a motive as adolescent or even anti-intellectual, the fact remains that literature flourishes, in part at least, because of the freedom and escape it affords our imagination."
And for those works which do not seem like "escape," we should ask what they have that have led them to "survive" over time!
2.) Reading to Learn
"Literature offers the reader 'knowledge' in the form of information . . . information that at the time is all the more fascinating because it is part of the author's re-created world."
"Literature read in this way serves as a social document, giving us insight into the laws, customs, institutions, attitudes, and values of the age in which it was written or in which it is set."
Literature "broadens our knowledge of the world. [However,] not all of this 'knowledge' is particularly valuable; and much of it will be forgotten quickly. Some of it may, in fact, turn out to be misleading or even false, and as such must always be checked and verified against other sources."
3.) Reading to Confront Experience
"One of the most compelling aspects of literature is its relationship to human experience. Reading is an act of engagement and participation. It is also, simultaneously, an act of clarification and discovery. Literature allows us, as perhaps no other medium can, the chance to overcome the limitations of our own subjectivity and those limitations imposed by sex, age, social and economic condition, and the times in which we live. Literary characters offer us immediate access to a wide range of human experiences we otherwise might never know. As readers we observe these characters' private as well as public lives, and become privy to their innermost thoughts, feelings, and motivations. It is the very intimacy of this access that explains why psychologists have traditionally found imaginative literature a rich source for case studies to illustrate theories of personality and behavior." [For example, the Oedipal complex!]
"The relationship between literature and experience, however, is a reciprocal one. Just as literature allows us to participate in the experience of others, so too it has the power to shape and alter our attitudes and expectations. To know why we identify with one character and not another may tell us about the kind of person we are or aspire to be. If we are sensitive and perceptive readers, we have much to learn from these encounters, which can enrich the quality and affect the direction of our lives, though the precise effects of these encounters are impossible to predict and will vary from one reader to another. One mark of a 'great' work of literature is its ability to have an effect on the reader. In the same way, it is this affective power of fiction, drama, and poetry that helps to explain the survival of those works we regard as classics. [Works] survive as classics because they have offered generations of readers the opportunity to clarify and perhaps even modify their views of life and also because they shed life on the complexity and ambiguity of human existence, including the reader's own."
4.) Reading for Aesthetic Pleasure
"Literature can also be read for the sheer aesthetic pleasure we take in good craftsmanship of any kind. 'A thing of beauty is a joy forever' is a phrase the poet John Keats has given us; well-ordered and well-chosen words are one of the few forms of immortality. Despite its other uses, a poem, a play, or a novel is a self-contained work of art, with a definable and describable structure and texture: it can be approached and appreciated on terms that are uniquely its own. What distinguishes literature from other forms of artistic expressions is its reliance on structure and style in language. Sensitive and experienced readers will respond to well-chosen words, though they many not be initially conscious of exactly what they are responding to, or why. When that response is a positive one, we speak of our sense of pleasure or delight, in much the same way that we respond to a painting, a piece of sculpture, or a musical composition. If we push our inquiry farther and try to analyze our response, we begin to move in the direction of literary criticism."
On Literary Criticism:
"Rumor to the contrary, literary criticism is not an exercise in human ingenuity that professors of English engage in for its own sake. Neither is the word criticism to be confused with the kind of negativism and fault finding we sometimes encounter in caustic book reviews. The fact of the matter is that the more we learn about how to approach a story, poem, or play, the greater our appreciation of a truly great work becomes, and greater still the sense of pleasure and enjoyment we can derive from it. Literary criticism is nothing more, or less, than an attempt to clarify, explain, and evaluate our experience with a given literary work. Properly understood and properly employed, literary criticism allows us to raise and then answer, however tentatively, certain basic questions about an author's achievement and about the ways in which he or she achieved it. It also allows us to form some judgments about the relative merit or quality of the work as a whole."
"Like all organized fields of academic study, the study of literature rests on at least three key assumptions that critics and readers must be willing to accept.
Literary criticism, first of all, presupposes that a work of literary art contains certain significant relationships and patterns of meaning that the reader-critic can recover and share. Without such prior agreement, of course, there can be no criticism, for by definition there would be nothing worthy of communication.
Second, literary criticism presupposes the ability of the reader-turned-critic to translate his experience of the work into intellectual terms that can be communicated to and understood by others.
Third, literary criticism presupposes that the critic's experience of the work, once organized and articulated, will be generally compatible with the experience of other readers. This is not to imply that critics and other readers will always see eye to eye, for of course they do not and never will. It is to say that to be valid and valuable the critic's reading of a work must accord, at least in a general way, with what other intelligent readers over a reasonable period of time are willing to agree on and accept."
A Warning about Analysis:
"The analytical method, it should be noted, is just one of a number of approaches taken by critics in their exploration and study of literature. It is true that by focusing our attention exclusively on the literary work we run the risk of minimizing, or ignoring altogether, many other factors that might otherwise contribute to our understanding. With the analytical method, for example, we tend to overlook
the author's intention in writing the work,
the relationship between the work and the author's life and experience,
or the even broader relationship between the work and the historical culture in which it was written and to which it was originally directed.
The analytical method also tends to ignore the vital relationship of literature to human experience in general and to the reader's own experiences in particular."
Source: Concise Companion to Literature, by James H. Pickering and Jeffrey D. Hoeper, New York: Macmillan, 1981, pages1-7.