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How great is ‘great literature’ if it needs to be studied to be understood?

By Malkie Khutoretsky
 Unsplash: Iñaki del Olmo
*Updated 2024
Some readers enjoy picking apart Shakespeare while others find inspiration in To Kill A Mockingbird. As schooling progresses, required reading expands to more complex literature, like Poe, Balzac, Frost, Mann and Plato, among others. These texts, often referred to as Great Literature, have been used by high schools and universities alike to encourage discussion and reflection. But what makes them so “great”?
From Dante’s Inferno to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, how great is Great Literature if it takes a high school or college course load to decipher?
Here are three arguments in favor of studied texts and three against.


Cons of Studied Texts


Creating a Gap Where There Should Be a Bridge

The study of Great Literature divides us into two camps: those who get it, and those who don’t. Whether it’s the complex language or dynamic concepts, classic literature can alienate readers, especially if the only way to understand it is through a course load. Take Ulysses. It’s supposed to be genius, but if readers can’t grasp it after hours of study, then they might think literature isn’t for them. They may, therefore, lose touch with books and drift, instead, to more accessible and less challenging texts; they may even drift out of literature altogether – essentially making Great Literature literature’s own worst enemy.


Dead-End Lessons

A writer’s job is to convey a story and engage the reader’s mind, often through emotion. If the fiction writer has great ideas but doesn’t engage the reader, then he or she has failed. Shakespeare became Shakespeare because, in his time, he wrote melodramas for the masses. His emotional impact worked, as evidenced by the fact that all of the richness of his words had a receptive audience. Additionally, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway introduced high concept without the use of “high words.” It might be that great literary works are not actually that great if they turn reading into (home) work.


Analysis Diminishes Legacy

Literature is solitary and meant for intimate consumption, not class reading. One person writes it, one person reads it. The way that we personally experience art is its legacy. We may never definitively know what the Beatles’ song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is about or why the Edvard Munch figure is screaming, but that is what makes them endure. Similarly, with Great Literature, people create the meaning they need and extract their experience from the rich layers of a truly great text. Readers who come back to the same text in different points in their lives will read it differently because they are different. Teachers telling readers what to think about On the Road, is probably not what Jack Kerouac intended when he frantically wrote his great literary work.



The Pros for Studied Texts


Discovering a Common Theme in Humanity

Bookstores may be filled with bestsellers that contain neat little lessons, but the lessons discovered by taking time to truly understand Great Literature are, perhaps, the richer ones. From studying literature, we learn about ourselves in greater perspective while learning to appreciate the many layers in art, and, indeed, life. There are supposedly only seven stories, or types of plots, in literature, and this is because the same things have always made humans tick. By deconstructing literature, we can place ourselves in these plots and identify a sense of purpose; we can challenge ourselves and our beliefs. Like great cuisine, Great Literature can’t be gulped down, it needs to be digested slowly.


It’s Not Just What You Learn, But How  

Great Literature asks its readers to locate its relevance and impact on society, both positive and negative. Literary criticism takes a piece of work and puts it under a magnifying glass. The process of studying is as beneficial to the reader as the work itself. By reading The Greats, you learn history, the norms of the time, as well as geography. As Henry James once said: “It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature.” Plus, with text analysis, a reader can form a personal relationship with a body of work. Socrates believed that “learning is seeking the truth in matters,” and from him, we have adapted the Socratic method of question-based learning.


Applying the Fundamentals to Real Life  

We use stories to talk about ourselves. That’s how we share our lives (i.e., “How was your day in school?”). That’s how we sell an idea (i.e., “That commercial made me cry”). Knowing how a story works provides us with tools that are relevant for many aspects of our practical lives. Great Literature exposes students to a smorgasbord of emotions and literary devices. These devices, including time, space, allegory, etc., create a scene and a context. Mastering these devices may even help us live more ethical lives. What’s more, readers can get inspired by The Fountainhead’s Howard Roark and learn the basics of an exciting speech at the same time.


The Bottom Line: For better or for worse, literature has bridged divides, inspired change and challenged our images of ourselves. Should the greatness of a text be measured by how great it is to read or by how complex it is? Should we keep going back to the classics for guidance or leave them in the past tense?

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