Why Study Literature?

By Jan Alber; Stefan Iversen et al. | Go to book overview
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Werner Wolf


“Why study literature?” the key question of the present volume could quickly be answered: literature ought to be studied because as a discourse with its own history and devices it is a human cultural activity complex enough to merit scholarly analysis; in short, if one still agrees with Alexander Pope that “[t]he proper study of Mankind is Man” (Essay on Man 11.2), literature must be part of such “proper study”. However, this answer may sound rather unsatisfactory, and the issue at hand merits more in-depth analysis. Perhaps the question ‘why study literature?’ is formulated in a potentially misleading way. Are we really asking why literature should be studied at all? If literature were just one minor manifestation of mankind’s cultural activities, a handful of scholars would arguably be enough to deal with it, and literary studies could be reduced to a tiny, exotic discipline, one of those for which an enlightened Austrian politician some years ago coined the memorable phrase “Orchideenfach” ‘orchid discipline’. Yet this is not what literary scholars actually have in mind when putting the question ‘why study literature?’ self-reflexively to themselves as in the present volume. Rather, the real question would be something like ‘why should the study and the teaching of literature occupy a prominent position in the educational system at schools and universities?’.

The general drift of a possible answer to this reformulated question from a literary scholar like myself is clear enough and would go in the following direction: ‘Since reading literature is full of benefits for the individual as well as for society at large it is a particularly worthwhile object of study that merits a privileged place in education, research and society’. But there’s the rub, for this positive view of literature is no longer a generally held conviction in our Western world. Rather, it would appear that the attitude that


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