The Religion of Literature
I entered the field of literary study simply because I loved it. I had no desire to experience the critical debates that so inspired Gerald Graff, nor did I want to kill the author, “confront greatness,” or actualize my literary-community role in any capacity; the ability to enter a new world was more than enough for me. However, after meeting scoffs and laughter when I proudly announced my decision to study Literature, I began to think that love alone might not be a sufficient basis for a lifelong study. This hesitation prompted me to take the first steps on a path to understanding: I began to ask questions. And in the words of Robert Frost, “That has made all the difference.”
While attempting to justify my choice of study, I found myself justifying the entire premise of my life. “Why do I read?” became synonymous with “Why do I live?” The act of opening a novel became a reenactment of my premortal choice to enter this world. The standards I brought to each work were a perfect copy of those I practiced in my real life. Seeing the literary realm juxtaposed with the physical one highlighted the similarities much more than the differences. It became apparent that, as a creature of both worlds, my choices in one absolutely affected the other.
This concept of our decisions influencing the outcome of a scenario is part of what makes literary studies so unique. Seldom are the results of our work so completely part of us. In mathematics, a problem solved one way or another will equal the same thing. Literature is one of the few fields in which we are given an absolute – a text in print – and then we are allowed to determine what it accomplishes.
Another benefit of experiencing life in two worlds is the potential for progress. We can learn things through literature that would be much harder to learn in reality. For example, by reading something as fantastical as J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, we begin to understand perfectly real problems, such as addiction or betrayal, without a physical jeopardy. That is, we can face dangerous trials from a safe distance. Thus, experiencing a removal from the author (not necessarily an authorial death, but a distinct separation), we are given an agency with the text that mirrors our agency in reality. The ultimate lesson we learn depends entirely on our own decisions.
We need not forget the inherent beauty of good literature. Reading something we find personally inspiring or lovely is as important as reading “the classics.” While the actual definition of “great literature” is completely subjective, the idea that it exists is fairly universal. Many books contain elements of greatness. We shouldn’t operate under the assumption that a book must be completely perfect; those books are few. Rather, we should focus on appreciating the small pieces of beauty that exist in an imperfect text-world, much as we are advised to appreciate the things “of good report or praiseworthy” in the physical world. This task to seek out the good and confront it may seem daunting, but it is also marvelously rewarding.
Why, though, is it so important to study at a university? Reading is a simple enough process, and as previously mentioned, the ultimate take-away is based on personal decisions. The answer, simply, is because one crucial element in literary study cannot be accomplished alone: communication. Upon entering a classroom setting, we are entering into a community of people with the same designs. It provides not only a way to communicate with the texts themselves, but also new methods of communication with other people who appreciate literature. Indeed, our chances of meeting the author of a text are fairly low. Literary communities, then, have the responsibility of actualizing debates. Completely alone, we have a hard time approaching a text with different points of view. With the help of a community, however, we can learn to expand our outlook. Teachers and peers who belong to this literary community present us with new ideas – concepts that we might never have discovered on our own.
It is this development of viewpoint that truly validates the pursuit of literary study. We enter into critical discussions because we desire to grow. As Gerald Graff said, “Nobody lives or thinks in this world without theories.” It is true that theory is inescapable. But by acknowledging our own entrance into the world of discussion, we allow those ideas to work upon us. And ultimately, if we enter the critical debate with an aspiration to grow beyond ourselves, we can create the exact character that we desire: one that functions soundly in both literature and reality.
English Professor Zina Petersen once said, “If someone asks you what you’re going to be with a degree in English, look ‘em in the eye and say, ‘Educated!’” That is precisely what I intend to become. But I am not merely studying literature; I am studying life. An understanding of texts is an understanding of created worlds. In this regard, few other courses of study lend themselves so wholly to the emulation of divinity. This emulation is the greatest thing we can ever hope to achieve. C.S. Lewis wrote, “A mole must dig to the glory of God, and a cock must crow." I would add to that, a student of literature must read, for by reading with the desire to learn, we expand ourselves on every level. I entered the field of literary study simply because I loved it. I stayed because I’m learning to live it.
I think, for the very first time, I truly comprehend what it is I'm doing.
I've been absent from my kingdom for so very long. But words have restored worlds.
It's good to be home.