Why we should study English Literature
Any question that begins with the idea of ‘should’ can easily induce a shudder. ‘Should’ always has the connotation of ‘We might not like this but we must and should do it because it’s good for us’. Good for us in some undefined and usually unexciting way.
But with English nothing could be further from the truth.
I could say that every book or poem or play you read is like a portal that takes you to another world – so immersive can it sometimes be. I could say each text is more like a window, letting us see another time, place person or point of view, or a magnifying glass we use to look at ourselves. I could say a text is a way of transmitting thought and feeling just short of telepathy – just short of magic.
All of these things are true. The English language is the most inventive, beautiful and extraordinary thing – but it is only a means of communication. At its best it allows us to ‘see feelingly’ – to quote Shakespeare – the lives of others. If you read something very good at an early age it will stay with you – you are like wet cement. And it becomes part of your consciousness in the same way as a dream. It will make your vision of the world more complex, detailed and comprehending than it was before. It refocuses the world – and while the image blurs – you change with it.
The first line of ‘The Go-Between’ reads, ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ If we were being exact we would look at that phrase and say it is a metaphor, a concise way of paralleling place and time. But in fact when it works, English works without us fully understanding how and why. English literature study is about finding out about the how and why, but beyond anything it is about the delight of swimming in an author’s particular sea – being immersed and taken to a place utterly outside yourself but also where you find your best self has been waiting all along.