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Introduction to Literature: The 6 Values

Updated: Jun 5

Introduction to Literature: The 6 Values

Virtual school starts tomorrow, and I’ll have a challenging task: convince teenagers, from behind a screen, to not only appreciate the magic of literature, but to understand its value and place in our society. I love opening the year with a question – so what are we doing here anyway? What’s the point of English class? What’s the difference between fiction and non-fiction? What is the value of literature?

Many students are just beginning to find their way in the world and make sense of their society and their surroundings. They might already love reading; most of them did when they were younger when they had someone to guide them through the words, sounds, and emotions of a book. Our students have a single set of experiences and will only have that single set of experiences unless we open them up to the world of ideas and stories in literature. Here are my 6 main values of fiction:

1. Understand self, identity, and relationships

“The truth has been emerging that metaphor is not just a way of describing things but is a way of experiencing them . . . The basis for this change was the recognition that metaphor is a lamp, not just a mirror, held up to nature… To use metaphors …. stems from a dangerous yearning for reassurance that the world I inhabit is conformable to my designs upon it … it has the meaning I want it to have.” - Brian Wicker

Can we read critically? Can we truly think for ourselves? What is the true nature of our relationships with our family and friends? What is identity and how does an identity change? How do we create an identity?

2. Capture the essence of reality and consciousness

“Beauty lay not in the thing, but what the thing symbolized.” Thomas Hardy

How can small things contain beauty or become symbolic? How can we connect with the consciousness of those in our lives, strangers, and people in the news? How can literature help us be grateful for the good in our lives? How can literature help us love with compassion, intensity, and good will? How can literature help us understand the full story, and not just the sound bite?

3. Interpret cultural and political discourses

"The illiterate peasant, miles away from any urban center ... nevertheless lived in several language systems: he prayed to God in one language ... sang songs in another, spoke to his family in a third, and, when he began to dictate petitions to the local authorities through a scribe, he tried speaking yet a fourth language (the official-literate language, 'paper language).” - Mikhail Bakhtin

How does fiction allow us to hear the stories of the powerless? Can literature help us make sense of suffering and death? Is language a status symbol? How are language and power connected? How do we speak differently depending on the context of the conversation? Can literature help us overcome limitations?

4. Map out a place

"[The artist is] the last to linger wherever there can be a glow of light, an echo of poetry, a quiver of life or a chord of music.” Charles Baudelaire

How does literature depict a place? How do places represent the consciousness of the character or ourselves? Why do places have social codes and norms that dictate the behavior of most of the people living there? How can literature expose the flaws of a place and improve on the status quo? How does literature create an atmosphere, and a feeling of a place? How does literature explain race, ethnicity, and tradition? How can we connect to our surroundings in a spiritual way?

5. Examine psychological oppositions and conflicts

"Shall we read [novels] in the first place to satisfy that curiosity which possesses us sometimes when in the evening we linger in front of a house where the lights are lit and the blinds not yet drawn, and each floor of the house shows us a different section of human life in being?" - Virginia Woolf

What conflicts exist in our unconscious and how do we recognize them? How does literature help us know what we want to do and what we should do? Can the experiences of a person determine their destiny? Do we have free will? What conflicts exist between people, societies, or countries and how can we manage or handle these conflicts? What is fair and just?

6. Define the past and create the future

“Words have users, but as well, users have words. And it is the users that establish the world’s realities.” – Amiri Baraka

How can literature help us to become more imaginative and creative? Is literature escape or immersion? How can literature allow us to connect ideas? Can we learn from the past and create a better, more efficient, more just society?

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