This post originally appeared on March 4, 2014.
For the epigraph to the preface of the latest edition of Literature: The Human Experience, I chose a few sentences from an interview given by David Foster Wallace: “We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.”
It might just be that simple, but I’m not sure that it is. I do think it’s possible to feel less alone inside by living for a while inside someone else’s head; even better, it’s possible that this identification can help readers of literature not only to feel better but to act better, to treat others more empathetically, and to do so because they know not only how others feel but also how they live. Teaching literature, then, could be a way to help people learn from literature how to be better humans.
But of course some historically awful humans are said to have read a lot of literature. And there is writing out there that one would be hard-pressed to describe as empathy-expanding (see Ayn Rand), yet it gets read and even taught. So it’s not that simple. What else? Helping students to appreciate beauty is a good reason to teach literature. So is teaching them to appreciate complexity, and ambiguity, and even contradiction. So is teaching them to communicate their own thoughts better in writing.
There are many good reasons to teach literature. The one I reject is the one that those inside and outside of higher education who question the value of the humanities are most ready to hear: that it prepares students to join the workforce, maybe even better than the business degrees to which so many are inclined these days. I think it’s great if studying literature helps get my students jobs—saying otherwise in this economy would be outrageous—but it’s no reason to teach literature. As important as the economic and the political are, and as much as literature can say about them, maybe the greatest value of literature is that it stands apart from these things. It gets produced and consumed, and emerges out of a world where money and power shape everything, but I teach it as art, as something that can resist those forces. So, in a much shorter formulation, why teach literature? Because in some saving measure, literature stands apart from the world of getting and spending, a world that is way, way too much with us. Time spent reading it and thinking about it and talking about it and writing about it is time well-spent, period.