It’s September 2006 and the author of this piece is sitting in their first Literature class. The professor begins the class by asking us, ‘why are you here? What’s the point of studying Literature?’ Chaos ensues, as we soon discover that we have never interrogated the ‘why’—we were all so focused on ‘how’, how to get the right grades to make it to university to study something we assumed must be important. Over the course of the seminar, each of us gives our own personal reasons for thinking literature matters—from valuing ‘alternative perspectives’ to learning about the past, to inspiring creative and political change. One student says to the teacher ‘you’re the English professor, you tell us.’
Most of the books in the Why It Matters series start with an agreed upon subject and set about explaining how vital it is for society: for example, how geographers can fight climate change, how historians can hold politicians to account, or how linguists are testing Artificial Intelligence. Bob Eaglestone takes a different approach, a classically literary one, by upending the whole premise of the book—that literature is a thing that we can define and therefore study. Eaglestone explains that over the centuries scholars have tried in vain to come up with a valid definition, but every definition creates more exceptions than it does examples.
This is a disorienting experience: if we don’t even know what literature is, how are we supposed to study it? And why?
As the judge said about obscenity, we know literature when we see it. No general definition of literature will bear scrutiny, but when we see a particular example, we can say ‘yes, that’s literature’. Literature, in other words, is subjective, open to interpretation, is never a foregone conclusion. It is always the starting point of a discussion—and this says Eaglestone, is precisely why it matters.
Imagine being in conversation with Homer, or Jane Austen or Chinua Achebe—experiencing moments when a hand reaches out of the past and touches yours, as you share a common human perspective or feeling, but also experiencing moments of disgust, or alienation, as a view you hold dear is challenged, or a situation you may never encounter is evoked. Now imagine putting this book down and someone else opening it 7,000 miles away in Seoul. Eaglestone calls literature a ‘living conversation’ across time and space, with the author and ourselves, but also with all the other people who have read and discussed the work, and all the people who will. And because others are continually joining the conversation, it can never reach a conclusion, remains open-ended.
In these times of political polarization and media manipulation, what could be more important than getting a room full of young people to speak with strangers? To read not with some end in sight (now I can apply this knowledge to achieving X) but in order to be a critic, someone who reflects, discusses, and questions? These soft skills, in fact, are just what governments and businesses are discovering we need, as technology increasingly makes traditional practical and technical jobs a thing of the past. Instead literary study teaches us to question first premises—what are our values, what is the real nature of the thing we are discussing, how does the author persuade us that things are just so? And how do we construct a convincing account of what they mean?
Robert Eaglestone is Professor of Contemporary Literature and Thought at Royal Holloway, University of London.
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