Why Study Literature?

By Jan Alber; Stefan Iversen et al. | Go to book overview
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Sune Auken

A key question when discussing the reasons for literary studies is whether the study is an aim in itself or a means to achieve some other purpose. One of the fundamental discrepancies here seems to be that although literary studies as a means to an end is the easier argument to make, very few people actually engage seriously in literary studies for any other purpose other than their own need to understand and enjoy literature.

For a number of years now I have been bringing up the question “why study literature?” in all my freshman classes. Even before their first day at the university practically all of my students have been asked why they want to study literature, and precious few have had any particular luck answering it. Thus, they are often intimidated and frustrated by the question, and they spend a lot of time dodging it or mulling it over. But more than that, they feel the discrepancy just described. They feel awkward trying to defend the study of literature for its own sake, and thus they tend to resort to the second line of argument, but not entirely without feeling that they are somehow betraying themselves. And in one important sense they obviously are: they have one motive for studying literature, interest, but they indicate other reasons that are easier to defend socially. This situation calls for a response from us as teachers of literature. A major reason for the importance of this subject is that we fail our students, we fail our subject matter, and in an important sense we fail ourselves too if we are not able to give a meaningful answer to the question “why study literature?”.1 The crisis of legitimacy is read

1 In the 20th century the importance of literature has been held as an equally central assumption in movements otherwise opposed. The “Great Books” tradition, towards which I admit having a profound weakness, presupposes an inherently edifying effect in the studying of literature to the point where Eliot (1968) can make this claim about I. A. Richards: “Mr. Richards, like every serious critic of poetry, is a serious moralist as well” (Eliot 1968, 17). The importance of literature, if not the edifying effect, is


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