Over the course of the last week or so, I have been developing a syllabus around the question “what is literature for?” Oddly enough, this would have been an easy enough endeavor for me—I wrote my undergraduate thesis on essentially the same question—except that I wasn’t simply designing a theory course. Instead, the syllabus is designed as an introductory literature course for community college.
How can I take up a debate that has gone on since Plato first threw the poets out of his imagined republic (with the notable exception of Homer) first, in the short length of a semester-long course, and second, with students who might not care or who have many other concerns like work and family filling their thoughts? In other words, how can I show that the study of literature can be personally impactful and socially relevant? [...]
The concept of the traditional canon was the first idea to go. A bunch of dead white males may have written some incredible (and impactful) works—and it’s unlikely that you’ll find me disdaining Homer, Dante, Milton, John Donne, Wordsworth, Shakespeare! in anything but a loving way—but I didn’t want to choose texts only because they had been endorsed by an academic institution which still clings to the dead white male canon.
My ideal was to select texts that would be relevant and engaging for the largest possible range of students, which, as it turns out, is almost an impossible task. I have no way of knowing who those students will be, what their passions are, who they imagine as their ideal selves. I have no way of gauging what cultures they will identify with.
All I know is that I love literature because I feel that I relate to different texts even as those texts keep me at a critical distance.
I decided to choose some of my favorite texts, texts which show the ways literature can reflect—however (in)adequately—on literature itself, on issues of gender and politics, on trauma, on cultural identity, on questions of access, and on life in general, in all its myriad forms.
Although to a certain extent the selection of these texts is somewhat arbitrary (and must be—how to choose from everything ever written?) I will include a brief list of some of them here, in the hopes that either you as reader will get a better sense of my project, or that you too will find a text which can impact you personally and speak relevantly to your perception of society.
1. Haroun and the Sea of Stories, by Salman Rushdie
A story about a young boy, Haroun, who must save his father’s storytelling by traveling to Earth’s mysterious second moon, where he discovers the Sea of Stories.
2. The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula LeGuin.
A human traveler tries to intercede in the politics of a world far in humanity’s future where a certain type of humanoids is genderless most of the time, and can select gender as they please during periods of mating.
3. Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko.
A young man returns from the Vietnam War to his home on a reservation, where he must learn to cope with the trauma of war and the trauma of dislocation while reconnecting with his people.
4. Reading is My Window, by Megan Sweeney
This study of reading in women’s prisons looks at the ways in which reading can be beneficial for prisoners while also examining issues of access to books in prison.
5. Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner
While on Fulbright in Spain, a young man tries to cope with mental illness and general ennui while writing poetry and trying to make sense of art experiences.
Although I am not necessarily any nearer to answering the question of what literature is for, as far as these texts have been instrumental in my own life, literature serves at the least (or perhaps at the most) as a form of enjoyment.