Why Study Literature?

By Jan Alber; Stefan Iversen et al. | Go to book overview
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Svend Erik Larsen

“What was in this book?” Ralph asked, unhappily.
“Mad things”, Turner replied, “to blow the world up; anyhow, the world that
you and me knows. Poems and things”.
(White 1988 [1957], 255)


The umbrella question of this volume, Why study literature?, brings us to a fork in the road. In one direction we are led to the immediate answer: to educate professionals. There is a need for professionals in the field, working as critics in the media, as teachers on all levels of education where literature is part of the curriculum, as researchers in universities, research centers and large libraries, as librarians, as publishers and editors and as organizers in various cultural institutions. Here, the professionals of literary studies are doing more than just responding to various needs and wishes from students, readers and users in general. They are also responsible for shaping this readership and thus place literature as an active part of our cultural environment.

Relevant as such an answer may be, in its content and its consequences, the forked road also points in another and more troubling direction, somewhat hidden if we take the open question concerned with the study of literature as the only question that calls for our answer. To my mind we have, first and foremost, to address a more fundamental question: why literature? Why is literature so important that we study it and want to use our professionalism thus gained to promote literature in various ways? This has not always been the case. During centuries when the imitation paradigm reigned supreme in the literary world, literature was studied by those who wanted to know how to write it, guided by Horace’s ars poetica in particular. In other cultures, like China, the established canon was also studied by those who wanted to compete for a high position in the imperial administration.

Hence, asking the question “Why literature?” in order to underpin the study of it through the institutionalized activities we know today in the


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