Sunday, March 20, 2011

On Literature

Growing up, everyone in my school (myself included) assumed I would go off to college and major in literature in a foreign language.  After all, I loved to read and I loved foreign languages, and I love analyzing things.  Furthermore, literature and foreign languages were seen as pretty useless topics in my community, and I was one of the few who defended them as topics worthy of study with "real-life" applications.

The problem is that I have in fact always disliked studying literature.  I've been ruminating on this conundrum ever since the last conference I attended, which because it was loghatelba7th focused, rather than discipline focused, included quite a number of presentations on literature, some of it on books that I had read (because I still like reading in loghatelba7th, particularly contemporary literature).  I enjoyed these presentations, a marked contrast to a friend (who is in my discipline, more or less) who told me he was skipping all of the literature panels because he hates literature.

So, I've been thinking about how it is that I dislike literary analysis while at the same time enjoy reading literature, listening to presentations about literature, and even reading blogs by literature academics, where my favorite posts are often related to their research.  On the one hand, I like listening to presentations and reading blogs on other subjects too, like biology or physics.  However, I don't enjoy "doing" science in the same way I enjoy reading.  Of course, literary analysis requires far more than just reading, but it's also true that I do analyze the books I read in some way--I don't just follow the plot, or wonder if this is the author's secret life story, or look up the Wikipedia entry to figure out what to think about it (although if it is really good, I often do look the author up on Wikipedia to find more to read).

I think the part of the problem is that because I find fiction reading one of the most enjoyable things on earth, I don't want to read books I don't enjoy, which seems like a necessary part of literary analysis*.  There are some classic "literature" books that I really dislike and some others that would hardly qualify as "literature" that I enjoy quite a bit.  The definition of "literature" is probably a little more flexible in the actual world of literary analysis than it was in my high school, but it's still there. I should also note that I'd have difficulties with something like "popular literature" as well, because many things I like to read are neither "literature" nor "popular", although I do read a lot of that as well.

Another, potentially more serious problem, is that part of the reason I enjoy reading so much is that there is no reason to stick to what is actually written for enjoyment when you can make up side stories.  When I enter a book, it is like entering a new world, where there are a few guidelines and the rest is up to your imagination, particularly if the plot or characters of the book itself are not up to snuff.  Unfortunately, writing about the stories you discovered when you followed two of the characters out of the story and into a side story is not really acceptable in any sort of literary analysis (or really any discussion of the book), as I discovered in middle school, much to my dismay.  Years later, to even greater dismay, I discovered that not everyone makes up side stories, and it suddenly became clear why they might not want to finish a book if they didn't like it.

So as far as I can tell, these are the reasons I don't like literary analysis, even though I feel like I should, because I usually find its subjects and results interesting.  Luckily, thanks to Amazon, conferences, JSTOR, and blogs, I can usually get the subjects and results I enjoy without having to do the actual analysis, which I dislike!

*Obviously I have to read books I don't enjoy in my field, but they are non-fiction, which is different.

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