Why Study Literature?

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

ON THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN
READING AND STUDYING LITERATURE

Magnus Persson

Our time is often described as a period of transition from a text culture to a media culture. Literature’s position as a privileged educational tool has been undermined and its competition from newer forms of media is enormous. Literature neither can nor wants to play the role of the bearer of a national spirit or a connective force in culture. The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk (1999) describes the situation as post-humanistic and postliterary. But this hardly means that literature is dead. The market for books is booming and the number of books published is increasing steadily, often thanks to, and not despite, new media technology. There are many signs of this continued interest in literature and reading: within academia, there has been an expansion of literary theory in the last few decades; outside academia, there have been many reading campaigns, such as World Book Day, and a boom in guides on how to read literature (Persson 2008). These phenomena can be viewed not only as proof of the health of literature, but also as a symptom of the fact that people no longer understand, how and why they should read literature.

In these times, the reading of literature has to be legitimized in a new way (Persson 2007). In this debate, people often forget to contextualize their reasoning and arguments. An important example of this is the – often implicit – use of the basic distinction between reading and studying literature. This distinction is far from as obvious and innocent as it may seem. Dealing with it includes more or less invisible valuations and ideas about what it really means to be able to read a literary text.

In this chapter, I will problematize a couple of the recurrent concepts and dichotomies within current literary theory that often arise in discussions about the practice of reading: e.g. naive/critical reading, consumption/ reflection, and notions of “subjective” responses to literature. A central question is: how are the differences between “regular” and professional readers characterized and valued? The goal of this analysis is to emphasize the need for increased theoretical attention to the relationship between reading and studying literature. The presuppositions underlying the use of this distinction

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