In Defense of Literature – The Yorker
Written by Ruo Wei Lim
‘What do you plan to do with your English degree?
Some version of this interrogative is the first and often the only answer I get from people asking what I’m studying in college, whether it’s friends, family, or strangers. . She is posed not with disgust or even disapproval but with an awkward mix of curiosity and concern. There is an edge to polite inquiry, a skepticism masked by the performance of courtesy. I can feel it in the slight pause that always comes after I reply “I’m studying English Literature”, I can see it in the way their faces turn into a cautious blankness, unsure of what to do do with the information, even if they had dared to ask. All of a sudden, the onus of leading the conversation falls squarely on me. There is an expectation that I must fulfill, an expectation that I have already failed to fulfill, hidden in the subtext of this request. What are you planning to do?
Certainly, coming from a Chinese home and background, choosing to major in English Literature at a UK university is a privilege in more ways than one. Right now, my family – my father being the sole breadwinner – is financially stable enough to afford an education abroad and not just any education, but an arts education. Economic privilege allows me to choose my specialty out of passion and not out of necessity, without having to worry about survival imperatives. This is greatly facilitated by the fact that I am fortunate to have parents who are liberal in their beliefs about higher education and career paths and who have no ideological objections to me pursuing a degree in English (at least none that was voiced). In Singapore, where I come from, it is still somewhat taboo to pursue studies in English Literature, the “sweetest” and least promising of all arts.
For what is “English literature”? What does it mean to study literature and more specifically, why would you study it? People usually have a good grasp of the visual arts, even performance art, but invoke the realm of English literature and Pandora’s box of assumptions and preconceptions opens up, crowding the space between you and the person to whom you must explain yourself. Anyone can read a book. I read books all the time! My high school English teacher was so boring that I barely paid attention in his class. What is the use of it? How are you going to find a job? We no longer live in the 19th century. I don’t see the relevance, so there is none. These feelings haunt every English student, subconsciously trying to justify studying books and poetry in the age of Twitter and TikTok.
As late capitalism settles into its obstinate rhythms and cycles, cultural indifference and even contempt for the study of art and literature becomes increasingly insidious. Advocating for literature and the arts in general, at a time when its value seems exhausted, seems like a fool’s race, but now more than ever it is the mental habits, social awareness and emotional sensitivity that literature cultivates must be reaffirmed. For such is the true value of literature in any society, in any era: to develop in people a penchant for critical thinking, critical feeling. Live as Socrates advised an examined life. Far from being an abstract ideal, it has practical implications for how we engage with culture and politics on a daily basis, how we engage with ourselves and with others.
It’s a cliché to claim that reading and literature promote empathy, but it should be clarified that it means empathy in a politicized sense – the ability not just to see from different angles, but to see through false equivalences, to understand that not all perspectives are created equal. and prioritize accordingly. What other discipline is shaped so deeply by the intersection between history, culture, politics and personal life?
Literary texts – both oral and written – are a reflection of aesthetic tastes, a vessel through which the psychology and intellectual pursuits of a particular person or culture are channeled. If art imitates life, then it is a doorway into the lives and minds of people we will never meet, past and present, commemorated in a novel, a painting or a song. Literature is historiography, anthropology, psychoanalysis.
“Poetry” – and by extension literature – “is not a luxury”, wrote Audre Lorde, “it forms the quality of light in which we attribute our hopes and dreams to survival and change, to first transformed into language, then into an idea, then into a more tangible action.
“Reading habits are not limited to the classroom; they are public practices in the broadest sense,” write Kevin Sharpe and Steven N. Zwicker in Reading, society and politics in early modern England. “The health of democracy depends as much on forms of literacy and reading styles as on institutions and constitutions.” This is as true today as it was in early modern England, perhaps even more so, with the rise of meme culture and the specter of misinformation.
Perhaps renewed attention to the importance, indeed the necessity, of literature in a society increasingly oriented towards the spectacle and capitalist motivations would provide the key to a more fulfilling collective way of life. Reading, after all, shapes individuals, and individuals participate in and constitute a society in which we are all involved. In this regard, literature is undoubtedly an essential pillar of life, the most fundamental because it touches everyone’s life in one way or another. , whether fleeting or profound.
We would do well to remember the words of Albert Camus: “Great ideas, it has been said, come into the world as gently as doves. Perhaps then, if we listen carefully, we shall hear, amidst the tumult of empires and nations, a faint flapping of wings, the gentle quivering of life and hope.
Written by Ruo Wei Lim