ENGL379W - Special Topics in Literature: Why Read Literature?

Literary reading is in a period of vast change.  Today big state research universities emphasize science, technology, engineering, and mathematics today more than ever, and undergraduates often seek majors that they consider pre-professional.  Neither trend makes much room for literary study or other humanistic disciplines.  Concerning reading, the age of the physical book is waning, and digital reading may be altering what and how we read.  On the other hand, literary reading has been personally transformative and culturally central for thousands of years, and the world’s repository of literary works constitutes its greatest archive for the history of human experience.  These considerations make the subject of this course exigent:  ‘Why read literature?’  During the semester we will explore topics such as:  the current cultural, social, and educational contexts for reading; the history of reading; classical defenses of literature (for example, Aristotle, Horace, and Sir Philip Sidney); and contemporary arguments about the nature, value, and experience of literary reading.  In particular, we will consider the phenomenology of literary experience (such as ‘immersion’ in a fictional world); the possibility of personal development through literature; the social and cultural value of reading (can literature change your life?); the philosophical and ethical dimensions of literature; the aesthetic values in literary works (including beauty and pleasure); and the nature of digital reading.  At every turn we will be asking questions about our own reading experiences.  To that end, we will read and discuss some modern literary works, including Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Eliot’s The Wasteland, and Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.  In doing so, our goal will be to consider the value and experience of reading and not to arrive at any particular critical interpretations.  We will also read at least one book on literary value, along with excerpts from a variety of others.  Two essays, a mid-term, and a final, plus some likely short assignments and a class presentation.  Class attendance and participation will be important.