The recent controversy concerning the significant drop in the number of students taking Literature as a subject in schools has reaffirmed two personal perspectives. First, even though the decline can only be explained by a confluence of factors, there is little doubt that the decision to do Literature (and probably philosophy) has been frowned upon because it is not “pragmatic”. The justification, of course, is that good grades are not a given, since there might be no fixed answers to questions. Second, literature, as a general discipline or domain, can prove to be slightly intimidating for many individuals.
My take (and also to chime in on the present discourse) is simple: we need to stop perceiving Literature as a subject or academic discipline per se. Speaking from my personal experience (I have a predilection for fictional prose), the journey with Literature has been a fascinating one, because while you derive satisfaction from gaining new knowledge (as you do, I suppose, from academia), you also make emotional investments. Further, this immersion is conjured by nothing but words.
Despite spending six years with it in school, I am hardly the best Literature student around; in fact, my ability to pen narratives – I reckon – is non-existent. My teachers and classes were passionate, but I never did venture beyond the set examination texts. And I did feel a tad inadequate, as my peers were talking impassionedly about their adventures with the literary greats (you know, Shakespeare, Byron, Austen, and even Joyce).
Ironically, it was during my time in National Service – the fabled period when a guy’s mental faculties turn into mush – when I resolved to read more widely. I aggregated lists of “Books You Must Read Before You Die”, and began poring through texts after texts whenever I had free time (our libraries, by the way, are incredible repositories). I began to change the way I wrote and spoke, and life, amidst immense regimentation and mindless engagements, became so much more colourful. I chuckled with Yossarian as he tried to manoeuvre around the curious Catch-22, I cried through “The Kite Runner”, and berated myself for being misled by Sir Conan Doyle’s red herrings time after time.
Still, a know-it-all I am not; which explains why I have my share of gripes too, in terms of not being able to construct a relationship with the text, or simply not getting “it”. I suspect this might be a reason why many might find Literature inaccessible, or be intimidated by it. I struggled through Tolstoy’s lengthy expositions in “War and Peace”, it was painful trying to decipher the nonlinear narrative when Faulker employed his trademark stream of consciousness through Benjy in “The Sound and the Fury”, and Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” was a tedious undertaking, with so many historical and religious allusions. So it goes.
Yet, Literature is not about all the big names and the famous texts, but – for me – a search for things you like, characters and plots that you connect with. There is no need to feel bad if you do not enjoy a particular work. I am always feeling my way through, making little discoveries.
So stop perceiving Literature as a pedantic, examinable subject. Soak in the joys of reading, and pass it on (books are a great conversation starter).
P/S: My favourite novel is “Les Misérables” (English translation), and I adore detective fiction (“And Then There Were None” by Agatha Christie is one of the best in the mystery genre, I feel), and I’ve recently discovered the wonders of graphic novels (the Batman novels, “Watchmen”, “V for Vendetta”). Check out my very humble Book Club (here).