Why Study Literature
We study literature for many reasons. Probably the most obvious reason is to explore human nature. The "classics" are regarded as such because they tackle universal themes and trends about people. The perpetual cycle of power; hidden good in a world of evil; the dangers of excessive nationalism; human resistance to change. All of these themes and messages are present in written works, and they all are embedded in human society. By reading and analyzing prose and poetry, a reader can see that some things in life truly are shared by all of us. In a world often separated by class, race, and belief systems, literature reminds us of the ribbon of humanity that binds us inextricably to each other.
A similar motivation could be that literature grounds us in our world, much like the study of history does. By studying literature, we are learning about the beliefs, attitudes and characteristics of times long past. The authors are often dead, but their take on the world that they lived in is fresh on the page. Even if their work is fictional, there is often a common attitude, such as naturalism in Of Mice and Men, that marks a piece as from a particular time period. Studying literature is a window into the past. Everyone needs a sense of belonging to function properly. Studying literature helps with that need.
It is often said that all writers read a lot. And it's true that reading literature helps people with their own writing. Everyone has influences of some sort. Exposure to a wide variety of poetry and prose expands the reader's mind. Even subconsciously. Reading too many boring biographies, for example, could have an unintended impact on someone's writing style. Perhaps their prose becomes dusty and flat and like an old textbook!
Literature is different from science, math, and history because it is not the memorization of information that is essential to success in the class. What is truly important is forging one's own opinion. Studying literature, its nuances and subtle hints of meaning, offers ripe opportunity for forging our own mental maps of everything in a work, from allegory to theme to hidden messages. By theorizing about all the different components of a particular piece of writing, anyone who studies literature is developing their ability to think abstractly and outside the box. Independent, creative thinking is essential for 21st-century life.
With such dynamic mental activity, the importance of the reader in literature should not be underestimated. Yes, the author created a piece of writing. And perhaps a certain meaning or impact was intended (think George Orwell's Animal Farm). And that meaning should be recognized and celebrated appropriately. But the importance of the creator ends right there, because the author no longer has control over something after it's been written down and published. If the point of writing is to convey a message, then the point of reading is to uncover as many messages as the reader likes. Reading empowers the reader, not the author through the reader. What the writer actually intended does not really matter in the end, because it's the reader that continues the intention of the piece of work. Thus it could be said that any piece of writing has a mind of its own.
Speaking of power to the reader, interpreting literature tells much about the reader as an individual. I will use a personal example to illustrate the concept. It is commonly accepted that the ultimate tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is the couple's suicides at the end of the play. Yet the actual horror, to me, is that neither family at the end learns anything from their experiences. Despite the bloodbath in Scene 5 being much more theatrical and emotionally triggering, I see the lack of change at the end of the drama to be far more terrible. The two families' ignorance will continue to spawn additional hate and intolerance in Verona, perhaps leading to more victims beyond the casualties in Romeo and Juliet. To me, my view of Shakespeare's play says that I ultimately judge something not by its immediate, outward appearance but by its overall significance.