Why do we study Literature?


I’m not going to lie to you: I like to read. A lot.

In fact, along with cuddles from my daughter, climbing mountains with my wife (literally, this is not some metaphorical nonsense you would find in The Notebook) and chasing an egg round a pitch with a bunch of sweaty men who want to tear me limb-from-limb, it’s possibly the greatest feeling in the world to me. But why do I enjoy reading so much?

As my Year 12 Literature students will know well, Oscar Wilde prefaces his Gothic novella The Picture of Dorian Gray with this startling aphorism based on the principles of the aesthetic movement: “All art is quite useless.” There are many different interpretations of this statement, forcing the reader to think about the nature of art and the benefit it brings to both artist and recipient.

And thus I raise a simple question: ‘What is the purpose of art, especially reading Literature?’

Is it:

  1. A means to an end; a qualification to enter university; a useful subject to place on our CV?
  2. Simply a form of entertainment; a method of escapism; a way to block out the mundane monotony of everyday life?
  3. Or, A way of changing our own morality, of sculpting our personalities for the better; a leap of faith to reach a higher level of humanity?

I will happily add my own thoughts at a later date, but please describe your reasons for reading in the comments section. Should you wish to, please include favourite quotations, characters and authors, so that others can share your passion for all things literary pleasing.

For the moment, I will leave you with a quotation from one of my recent favourite novel:

“The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print—the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly.”
John Williams, Stoner

I look forward to hearing your responses.

Mr B.R. Morris


16 thoughts on “Why do we study Literature?

  1. Ishmael Reed says “No one says a novel has to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o’clock news, the mumblings of wild men saddled by demons.” Literature is there to be anything the reader wants it to be. It can be a method of escapism for those who wish their own life was more exciting but it can also be seen as a different teacher for those that are fed up with the ones that stand at the front of the classroom. Someone’s opinion of what a ‘good book’ is therefore dependent on what literature is to the individual. Some may love books that make them feel like they are standing there watching the action unfurl for themselves rather than reading the words that accompany it; or it may be that the books that provide the immoral with moral reasoning are most favourable. In Matilda, Roald Dahl narrates “The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”

    “Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible.” This is echoed by the variety of genres that are available to all different age groups and social classes. In the past, Literature had to comply with the stoicism of the period it was writing for; books that referred to contreversial opinion were ignored and the authors persecuted by society. Furthermore, it was only available to the educated upper-classes and so books that addressed the problems faced by the lower-classes, like Oliver Twist, were also ignored. It is widely believed that Literature has adapted as the prejudices of society have developed into a more general acceptance; however, it is more accurate to say that changes in Literature has influenced the growth of society. Works such as Pride and Prejudice showed the reader the faults of society as they highlighted problems like the divide in social classes; whilst novels such as Dracula provided society with the greater imagination needed to overcome these issues. As a result, Literature has a greater influence on society than society has on Literature.

  2. As Maya Angelou states, “When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young.” The impact of this quote is quite extraordinary, especially to a young person like myself who much like other seventeen year olds, is trying to figure out what to do with their life. Literature is a form of escapism from the real world but can also help you make decisions in real life. Personally, I believe that the impact of historical novels are the greatest because it is so intriguing to imagine people in the past who have made the decisions that you are currently trying to make. Of course, the acknowledgement of the fact that literature is often not a real life situation must be taken into account, but why should it stop us from believing that we can use the same choices that the characters in our favourite novels make?
    I believe that the main reason why we study literature is to develop our understanding of the outside world and perhaps also to gain a qualification that can help us succeed massively in life. People who perhaps are not as lucky in life as we are should also read any form of literature in order to see for themselves the joys of external life and to help develop dreams and aspirations to succeed. Many people say that music is more influential then any other form of art there is, but very few songs written have no impact from literature whatsoever, even if your name is Drake. The quote “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent” (Victor Hugo) suggests that music is a form of literature than cannot be expressed in a book, something that I have to say, I extremely agree with.

  3. We study Literature to explore new concepts, to take an insight and to appreciate others writings; to make an argument and finally, to value context. Whereas, unlike Mathematics for instance, there is no wrong or right answer and this is what I find fascinating. Our opinion of literature is subjective, and this is why its purpose is so valued amongst today’s society.
    Personally, I didn’t select English Literature for just simply a ‘qualification’. Yet, I choose it because it’s never failed to entertain, and moreover, interest me. Literature gives me the opportunity to absorb texts, and to some extent keep my crazily creative mind sane, as it educates me to remain precise and analytical. Yet, also my imagination is useful, as I can perceive texts in a unique way.
    However, both art and literature are similar in several ways, they both require imagination; literature gives us the ability to digest words, and to explore the concepts of ones work. An argument I discovered by Mr Hoye, really fascinates me to a great extent. He states that ‘We often ask about a work of art (but never about a flower.)’ In other words, art enables us to communicate, study, and to release our inquisitive side, likewise echoed when studying literature. To me, this is fascinating. Besides this, I also understand that without literature we’d lack intelligence and furthermore one could argue, ‘civilisation’. As S R Hake states, ‘it not only delights, it instructs’, this is significant, as not only does it entertain, I believe it is the concrete for everyday communication, and even more crucially a career(we must be able to communicate for job interviews, as well as written skills are essential in order to pursue an ‘ordinary’ life.)
    Additionally, literature also remains in my opinion, a traditional and classical part of today’s society. Take for instance the noble authors amongst literature, who names will never be forgotten- such as: Shakespeare or Charles Dickens. They are so significant to us; we study them within the National Curriculum, because their literature is so admiring and intellectual. To many of us, these classic authors are some of our hero’s, as in my opinion, their level of intellect is to a great extent admiring.

  4. Art and Literature are significant forms of entertainment, however, their purpose can be argued to be of much more importance; a way of changing our morality and sculpting our personalities for the better.
    Discovering our likes and dislikes as a child is an important part of maturing and becoming an independent adult, which we can learn through children’s stories. Through Literature we can build on our own morals through discovering what we believe is right or wrong in our own opinion.
    Most importantly, Literature allows us to enter our own world of imagination, through which we incorporate the things we enjoy into our own story. We can see a clear exaple of this in A.A Milne’s Winne the Pooh:
    ‘ ‘We’re going to the North Pole’.
    ‘Oh’ said Pooh again. ‘What is the North Pole?’ he asked.
    ‘It’s just a thing you discover’ said Christopher Robin, carelessly, not being quite sure himself’. ‘
    Although we know that the North Pole is indeed a real place, through Pooh’s innocence we can imagine a whole new situation where the North Pole is a different destination, and we can manipulate it into what we would like it to be.
    John Ruskin stated: ‘Books are divided into two classes, the books of the hour, and the books of all time’. I agree with Ruskin completely, some books are merely to entertain the reader, whereas some books are to educate the reader and influence them in later life through the decisions they make, which can range from how they raise their children through to the career they chose to follow. A teenage girl like myself may come across a novel about a female falling in love, written to entertain, but I have personally noticed that sometimes reading a simple book such as this can influence life options, and lead you into a world of imagination in which you can come and go as you please, ‘the books transported her into new worlds, and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives’ – Roald Dahl, Matilda. On the other hand, a different individual may read the same novel and not be influenced by it at all, because every person has different tastes and preferences.
    I believe that through exploring Literature and art, we can express ourselves, and we can live our lives fully. Literature leads us to experience situations we may have not otherwise thought of doing without reading about it beforehand.

  5. Story telling is an age old tradition, stories explain things in a way that can be interpreted in any way the reader chooses, literature provides a sense of escapism for those who can bury themselves in a good book, and teaches people the power of language, that words are more that definitions. Words can provide so much more than what is simply being said; how something is said or written can reveal hatred, happiness, indifference, passion, sorrow, deceit, disbelief, and so on, even while, on the surface, only transmitting the most mundane information. By studying the use of language in literature, you learn how to use the subtleties of the language to your advantage.
    Literature also helps us gain a better understanding of other cultures and religions. History, anthropology and religious studies provide a method of learning about the cultures and beliefs of others from the outside looking in. Literature, on the other hand, allows you to experience the cultures and beliefs of others first-hand, from the inside looking out. The only other way to have such a personal understanding of others’ beliefs are to adopt them yourself -which most of us aren’t willing to do. If you understand where other people are coming from, you are better equipped to communicate meaningfully with them, and they with you.
    In the word of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe “The decline of literature indicates the decline of a nation.” I whole-heartedly agree with this. The decline of literature is an indication of the decline of culture and education in a nation, as well as a decline in readership. This, of course, is an unmistaken sign of the decline of the nation, as a whole.

  6. Literature is not merely the study of the book, of what the author wrote, what was intended and what this means for society, thought it is indeed all these things.

    It is also what the audience thought of it and what that means. A morally deplored work in one era is gospel truth in another; last century’s icon is this century’s stock character; today’s colourless mainstream grunge is tomorrow’s political treatise.

    Literature is the proud weathervane of popular culture; and popular culture; and popular culture the weathervane of humanity’s progress.

  7. The reasoning behind our study for literature is not common between individuals, as every participant has their own ideas and motives which put them in the literature direction. However, as English Literature is seen as one of the most respected subjects, if it was merely a choice of qualification, would everyone not have it as one of their options? Although the end result of a qualification in literature looks appealing, you have to be willing to journey towards the end result. As only a minority take literature, it cannot simply be the fact that a person is searching for a CV filler.

    This being said, the reason for our study of literature cannot simply be for enjoyment or for personal growth. The enjoyment for literature would mean that a person would be likely to have it as part of our lives, but if literature had no purpose and was plainly for enjoyment than this would more than likely be temporary. Without meaning behind something the human race generally becomes tired of it, and the things that bring us joy in life (such as a favourite song, an episode of a tv programme) will generally fade away.

    The opposite can be seen as quite similar to this, as the human race longs for enjoyment in what they do. Without satisfaction, no matter how much growth and understanding of morality they might undergo, in the end they will also become bored of doing something that does not bring them entertainment. Therefore for us to have reason to study literature these two feelings of entertainment and need for personal growth must co exist to create our reasoning for our studies.

    Nevertheless, as i believe that people who have studied literature will show these characteristics throughout their personality anyway, It also can’t be a bad thing to walk into a university with an impressive English literature A level, right?

  8. In the words of Roald Dahl “These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.” (Roald Dahl, Matilda) My favourite book is Matilda by Roald Dahl and he is my favourite author. To me his books allow you to be involved with another story at such a young age and his books help you to become a more confident person. They give you real issues children go through and how to react, they almost prepare for the real world. I feel that books are a way of escaping the bad things you have in your life. It can enable children in particular to escape any sadness and pain; you become totally free when reading a book. Books provide a basic understanding for children in order to explore the world more openly “All the reading she had done had given her a view of life that they had never seen.” (Roald Dahl, Matilda) Unconsciously they teach how there is another way out of the pain you are experiencing and want to get away from. “Books don’t offer real escape, but they can stop a mind scratching itself raw.” (David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas) This is one of my favourite quotes about books helping people to free their mind. If you are not strong minded enough to escape with books you can use them to free your mind and stop rerunning things over and over again. A perfect example of this message is within Matilda by Roald Dahl “You seemed so far away,” Miss Honey whispered, awestruck.
    “Oh, I was. I was flying past the stars on silver wings,” Matilda said. “It was wonderful.” (Roald Dahl, Matilda)
    In conclusion I feel that yes having literature on your CV is great but if that is the only reason you are taking literature then you are wrong about the power books have. You are limiting yourself to the incredible stories and experiences you can enjoy through literature. Overall the best reason to study literature is to open yourself to the literature and allow your mind to escape and become free.

    • I agree whole-heartedly with your conclusion (and indeed, your points about Roald Dahl). If the only reason that some people take Lit is for a good CV, then they have missed out on how important books are. And Dahl was and still is one of my favourite authors. I will keep my set of his books forever (plus the one I, er, borrowed, from middle school). I adore Matilda, but I’ve probably read George’s Marvelous Medicine the most. I think it’s something about the idea of a magic potion. Or being able to shrink your grandmother. Who knows.

  9. To study literature is not simply to analyse a set of novels and hence write a long winded, arduous essay about some mundane interpretations which a teacher has spoon-fed us, as most would presume. No, to study literature essentially is a form of enhancing one’s perception, intuition and interpretation of anything deemed significant by one. Hence enabling the ability to perceive the world in numerous lights and to enlighten those about the deeds performed by society.
    I personally chose to study literature as I enjoyed the subject and the influence it has had on me, not to mention the eccentric teachers. On a side note, I initially thought of studying literature at A-level as I had achieved an A in GCSE. However I am now able to appreciate literature and all forms of art as it enables me to understand the subtle nuances hidden with the art instead of perceiving the art for entertainment.

  10. Oscar Wilde states “all art is quite useless” in the preface of A Picture of Dorian Gray, however art and literature are not “useless” as they allow us to create worlds that we desire and that we can use to forget the pain in reality. For me, art and literature are entertainment as they take our minds on journey to places we can only imagine. In literature time can be manipulated, the reader can be taken back in time to a historical event or to the beginnings of time itself, or it can take the reader to the future. There are no limits to what can happen, to where you can be taken. Books and art feed our minds and broaden our imagination.

  11. “Books are the ultimate Dumpees: put them down and they’ll wait for you forever; pay attention to them and they always love you back,” John Green once wrote. I am in complete agreement with him.
    The second reason raised – that of Literature’s purpose being escapism and entertainment – is certainly the one I have the most experience with relating to. In middle school, the library was more frequented by me than the playground; and yet, it never seemed to 10 year old Rowan that I was headed to the library every lunch time. I would instead find myself in Count Olaf’s tower with Sunny Baudelaire; crammed into the dumbwaiter with the Grace siblings of The Spiderwick Chronicles; in Miss. Honey’s classroom, whenever I chose to reread Matilda for the umpteenth time. There was a love during that time which whisked me away from the boredom and loneliness of the school day.
    Which is why I will never be able to understand those who choose Literature solely for its use as a qualification; and have the greatest admiration for them, too, because one has to possess a will of iron to choose Literature when one does not enjoy it. The three points raised are all intricately linked to one another, in my opinion. It’s near-impossible to choose Literature for its educational worth only, and the entertainment value of books is what can apply to pressure to certain perspectives and analysis. However, regardless as to whether or not it was on purpose, the reader always returns from a book changed in some way. We have no choice in the matter. Our personalities and views and horrors and loves are nurtured, perhaps changed, maybe even repressed.
    John Green is not too far from the mark, I believe; books will always love you back. But it’s far from healthy to stay in this kind of relationship without being able to love them, as well.

  12. Literature can be used to provoke thought and as a result action, for example Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Authors like Martel, write novels which may change the readers’ ideas and sculpt their personality. As Sir Francis Bacon states, “Read not to contradict or confuse, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to talk and discourse but to weigh and consider” Reading is not just a form of entertainment but actually something that may change the reader forever.
    The use of literature to provoke thought is common from when we are children and although we do not read books which provide a huge life changing experience, we do read books which teach us small lessons which we still remember as we grow. For example, the children’s book The Lorax by Dr Seuss teaches children about the importance and beauty of nature, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
    The purpose of literature is not only decided by what the author created but what the reader intends for it to be. The author has a clear meaning for their work, everything they write is meaningful to them, however each reader will interpret it in a different way. One person may simply be entertained by what they are reading whereas another may create a new attitude to life due to it.
    Although literature is not always for entertainment purposes, entertainment plays an important part in every piece of literature. Without even so much as an aspect of entertainment then literature would be uninteresting and boring. Therefore whatever the purpose of literature, may be to change our views on life or simply to entertain us, entertainment will always play an enormous part but will not always the sole purpose of the novel.

  13. Yes, having English Literature on your CV is something you should be proud of because you’ve worked for it etc., but there’s so much more to literature than just a qualification.
    Many people study literature because they already love it. The qualification is just a product of our passion. Novels inspire people, in many ways and they have different impacts; for some, reading helps to shape their personalities and outlook on life. Others, it’s a form of entertainment or escapism. Everyone has a novel which they love, and can read over and over, quoting it and discussing their favourite characters with others. Reading enriches our own knowledge and understanding of the world we exist in.
    Diana Wynne Jones, the author of my favourite novel, “Howl’s Moving Castle”, says that she wrote literature to “tell people in my books how to cope with the world when it goes crazy around you”*. This would be relatable to many children (like me when I read the book) who feel this way when they’re growing up – feeling as though people don’t understand them. It could also be a reminder to many adults who’ve read her works previously and have been inspired, for example. Reading literature can educate us too – in history, cultures, religion. It allows our mind to expand and be open to new ideas and concepts. We can explore without literally going anywhere, all thanks to literature.


  14. Would you believe me if I told you that I don’t like reading? No, neither would I, because it’s a complete lie. Reading is one of my favourite things in the world. There’s something indescribable about the feeling of reading and being absorbed into the story of another, whether that person be fictional or real. This blog post asks for your reason for reading, so I’ll try to provide that. Warning: it might make me sound like an over-excited literature nerd. That would be because I am one.

    I feel that the reason we study literature varies from person to person. Some believe that Literature educates us, intentionally or not. I agree. I feel that some books can give the reader insight into the situations of those we cannot ever fully understand – such as The Fault in Our Stars (John Green. It’s good. You should read it), that follows a terminally-ill teenager, or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time (Mark Haddon. Also good. Read that too.), whose protagonist has an unstated condition which resembles Asperger’s Syndrome. For most of us, we will never experience this, so these books open our eyes to those that do. And for those that do, they can offer someone to share their experience with. From my experience, it is comforting to have a character that shares your good and bad times. It makes you feel less unusual.

    Some people feel that escapism is the reason that we read. I can agree with this too. Escapism can be found in a different story for each person. I know that I spend a lot of my time after reading wondering what my life would be like if I were in that fictional universe or that situation. I don’t think anyone that’s read the Harry Potter series hasn’t considered what it’d be like to be a part of that world.

    For me, there are two reasons that I read. After I read a book, it can take me a long time to do anything. I’ve become so attached to the characters and story of the book that it’s become almost a part of me. It’s like having a book-hangover, kind of. For days, all I can think about is how that story affected me, and I wonder what the characters did after the book ended. This is even more of a problem when books don’t tie up loose ends (for example, after reading Oracle Night I will ever question whether Nick got out of that locked bunker). It is hard to describe the feeling of this, and I suppose you must experience it yourself. But this feeling is one of the reasons I read.

    And the other is simply that I want to do it myself. I want to be able to write and share my ideas and create characters that readers can sympathise with and can love. I want to create stories that people will read and enjoy and will never forget, because they sit in the back of their mind as something they loved. I can’t remember a time where I haven’t been surrounded by books, and so if fiction didn’t exist, there’d be an odd sort of void in my life, and the lives of many other people.

    I think the reason that we study Literature is to share our thoughts, experiences and ideas with the world. But I also think that we study Literature to find out about ourselves. We often share our favourite books with one another, and people highlight or remember their favourite quotes. Some get them tattooed, whilst others doodle them, put them on walls or reel them off from memory. John Green once said ‘Maybe our favourite quotations say more about us than about the stories and people we’re quoting.’ and that’s something I agree with. Think about it. What can your favourite books and quotations say about you as a person?

    For me, Literature gives me a purpose and a goal. I feel that Literature and reading is about discovery, whether it be of yourself, of others, or of information. but ultimately Literature is about whatever you think it is. That’s the beauty of it. It can be whatever you want it to be.

    I cannot leave you with my favourite author, or my favourite book, because there are simply too many. But I can leave you with a quote from one of my favourite books that I feel sums up reading for me.

    “When I read a book, I put in all the imagination I can, so that it is almost like writing the book as well as reading it – or rather, it is like living it. It makes reading so much more exciting, but I don’t suppose many people try to do it.’

    – Dodie Smith, ‘I Capture the Castle’

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