ENGL 1025 Literature: Why It Matters

Why do we read literature? What happens when we see a play? What is the point of poetry? In this class we will ask such questions, and – by reading stories, watching plays and listening to poems – we will try to come up with some tentative answers. At first glance, the answer may seem obvious: we seek entertainment or escape. But how is the kind of escape offered by a good story or poem different from the endless distractions offered by the internet? Perhaps the sheer joy of complete, sustained absorption in a story is one of the primary reasons that bookstores continue to thrive. But does literature offer anything more than escape? Keith Oatley, Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Toronto, thinks so. “In literature we feel the pain of the downtrodden, the anguish of defeat, or the joy of victory—but in a safe space,” he writes. “In this space, we can, as it were, practice empathy. We can hone our ability to feel with other people who, in ordinary life, might seem too foreign - or too threatening - to elicit our sympathies. Perhaps, then, when we return to our real lives, we can better understand why people act the way they do, and react with caution, even compassion, toward them.” His theory complicates the accepted view that characters in literature must be “relatable;” by reading, he suggests, we can feel for others who are very different from ourselves. Others have advanced the notion that literature offers a window into the truth and beauty of existence, and a consolatory bulwark against our everyday grind and our mortality. In this course, we will test these ideas against a diverse range of literary works (poems, plays, novels and short stories). Because this is a Writing Requirement course, you will also produce regular informal and formal writing, and learn to examine your own work with a critical eye to make it better. Students should come to class prepared to discuss and engage critically with the assigned texts.