What good is literature? What’s it for? Why do we study it?
High school English students used to ask me that all the time.
I told them that reading novels and short stories, especially classics, would give them an edge on Jeopardy.
Today I’m going to tell the truth.
Once upon a time, the library I directed sponsored a scholarship contest for seniors going on to post-high school education—$100 for the best essay on the subject, “A Book That Changed My Life.”
One student wrote about Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, an autobiographical novel about a young woman’s descent into depression. At her lowest point, she attempts suicide and is hospitalized. With treatment, her condition improves. The book ends with her preparing to have an interview to determine whether she can leave the hospital. It’s suggested that she will go on to live a normal life.
About The Bell Jar, the girl wrote that she had once seriously contemplated suicide. After reading the novel, however, she abandoned the thought and had hope for her future.
Another student wrote about Judy Blume’s Forever. Katherine, who is preparing for college, falls in love with Michael and begins a sexual relationship with him. They’re sure they’ll be together forever. Later, Katherine becomes attracted to another boy. She sees that her relationship with Michael is limiting. She breaks up with him. She realizes that she can get over the break-up and knows she will go on to have other relationships in the future.
Disclaimer: I believe that teenagers should be allowed to read widely. I believe teens are capable of reading at a deeper level than many adults give them credit for. But when I read Forever in a graduate course in library school, I was horrified. The sex scenes are graphic, and the protagonist’s main concern is her sex life. No, no, absolutely not.
Then I read the girl’s essay. What she took from the novel: “I love my boyfriend, but I learned I have to be responsible for myself, and not depend on somebody else to take care of me. I carry the book in my purse all the time,” she wrote.
One novel convinces a teenage girl not to commit suicide; another shows a girl that she must be responsible for herself.
So what is literature for?
I apologize for being flippant. The next time I’m asked what literature is for, I’m going to be serious.
Literature has nothing to do with Jeopardy.
Literature is for life.