Fourth edition

Why read literature? “Literature helps us see the big picture!”

A professor at Seokyeong University in Seoul, South Korea, leads us through the shadow of non-literature majors approaching literature and language as a means to a brighter end.

source: flickr/redbanshee/

“The best way to think about reality,
I had decided, was to get as far away
from it as possible…”

  <Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle>

Steven Justice │ stevejustice1@gmail.com

In a world constantly concerned with economic instability and the importance of employability, the above quote from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a novel by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, is at odds with the masses. Reality has become all too important. Studying is a means to an end rather than an effort to improve the mind or enlighten the soul. Time spent studying the humanities is a waste when students could be harnessing a narrowly defined vocational skill.

“I ask my students why they are here to study literature…”

This is something I see first-hand at my university. On the opening day of my literature classes, I ask my students why they are here. “To improve our English and therefore enhance our chances of getting a good job,” they answer uniformly.

I am the only member of faculty in my department who teaches literature where all my students major in accounting. But really, I press them, what is the point of an accounting major studying literature? The real world looms large for these students in their final year of university. They need to get a job and they know it won’t come easy in today’s market.  I even question myself sometimes, how will studying literature help them?

Literature teaches us to ask questions. Dystopian classics such as 1984 by George Orwell and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury force readers to consider issues that are relevant to the lives they live, but have perhaps never thought of before. Graduates are often ejected into a world they do not fully understand and are not prepared for, much as Winston discovered when he went in search of the truth in 1984.

For years, students have been told that getting a degree is the only path to a good job but more and more these days, just having a degree is not enough. Students need to be able to comprehend the issues that face them; to be able to analyse them in depth and see what is really happening as opposed to blindly following what they are told is good for them. Too few people are concerned with the big picture. Bradbury makes the point very well in his novel, “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.”

“The real world demands a lot of attention…”

The real world demands a lot of attention. So much so that many find it a challenge to think or question it beyond the cliché – Where will my next meal come from? How will I provide for my family? Will I have a job next year? When will I get paid?

That all-important job, and its superficial benefits, leads to an often debilitating myopia. The more secure and comfortable we become in our lives, the less we want to endanger it. The situation of today’s highly competitive job market can very easily envelop us to the point where everything else becomes unnecessary. If it does not improve our immediate situation – please the landlord, placate the wife, impress the boss – it is not needed. Society has never been as diverse and as open to foreign cultures as now but most people do not get further than whatever is on television that night. Even when they know it is meaningless, they still watch it. As Bradbury writes of the average man, the thought is “[…]I don’t care. I just like solid entertainment.”

When considering such a dire situation (dystopic even!), Murakami has it right. All too often we become absorbed in our own lives to consider the situation on a larger stage. The further we get from the every-day routine that binds us, the more we can see. Fiction is an escape into other worlds, other realities; potential dystopian futures or completely foreign lands. The more literature we read, the more of life and our cultures we can understand. This mortal coil ties us to one place at a time, one life with one purpose – to survive.

Literature unravels us into distant places, ancient times, other peoples and their different ways of speaking and writing. Literature begs us to analyse, to compare and, most importantly, to question; to always be asking questions. If you do not ask questions when the firemen start making fires then you cannot complain when there are no more books.

“Literature helps us to question and to always be asking questions…”

This is the attitude that everyone should be taking into their own personal reality. Question the politicians and people in power or they will be free to do whatever they want; analyse what they say, be it about the war in Iraq or the war in Oceania. If the world is getting worse, and we can be fairly certain that it is, I hope it will be some of my non-literature major students who the first to ask why and how we can fix it, rather than blindly working through their balance sheets before sharing cups of Victory Gin…

Steve profileSteve Justice, Contributing Writer

Steve received a Masters in English Literature from St. Andrews University in 2004 before relocating to South Korea where he has taught English Language and Literature for seven years. After teaching at Catholic University of Korea, he now lectures at Seokyeong University in Seoul. He is also studying for a Masters in Literary Linguistics from the University of Nottingham. His research interests include critical literary analysis, stylistics, cognitive poetics, narratology and world Englishes.

 

This article was initially published on the September issue of The HPN Review. If you want to subscribe to The HPN Review, click here.

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