Everyone thinks literature is pointless. At least, that’s the impression you get if you look at the number of schools and students taking that up as a subject. That’s also the impression you’ll get if you take a look at what people who study it do:
That perception, though, can’t be further from the truth. Literature isn’t Shakespeare. It isn’t comparing things to midsummer’s days and seas incarnadine, nor is it a mess of symbolism, metaphors, allegory, onomatopoeia and personification. These things are part of the package, yes, but literature in its simplest and most beautiful form is essentially the study of the choice and order of words, and how they work to create meaning.
And contrary to popular belief, knowing how words work might be one of the most increasingly important skills in the present day, because amidst the sharp decline in literature’s take-up rate, the lessons and skills it offers are becoming more and more valuable.
If you’re not convinced, here are a few factors to aid your judgment:
#1 – Literature is extremely valuable.
Yes, even commercially. You don’t really need to know economics to realise that something with an increasingly high demand and falling supply is gonna be valuable. Literature teaches you to communicate with sharp effectiveness. It trains you to see the full meaning of every word, phrase and sentence, and helps you express yourself in a way not everyone can. Not too long ago, that skill might not have been that useful, because apparently you didn’t need to talk to anyone to get rich by working in a bank or investing in blue chip stocks.
But then, facebook happened, and iPhone, and the app store, and twitter, and suddenly everyone, everywhere is trying to reach out to you via their company’s facebook page. Everyone’s telling the story of how they came to be, who they are, what they believe in.
And, for the first time, people are actually listening. Social media marketing has brought an entirely new dimension to the game. And if there ever was a time when it is crucial to know how to write a proper story, or choose the best words for a message or a company slogan, it is now. Not because they didn’t exist before, but because people now actually pay attention to these things.
The demand for literarily-trained people is going to increase. Companies are going to look out for people who can design an entire marketing campaign with a persuasive central message. But the supply?
The numbers speak for themselves. In Singapore, there are only about 3000 students left taking it, from over 16000 in 1992. Yes, it is no longer over 9000, and if you account for the fact that the population has increased a whole lot since 1992, the numbers are even more significant.
Rising demand and falling supply. No prizes for guessing the outcome.
What’s more, literature itself distinguishes you. By distinguishing, I don’t mean that it makes you part of an intellectual elite too high up for the uneducated masses (that is a disgusting thought which some people might have), but simply that it makes you different from the other 90%. It automatically gives you attention. The fact that most people think it is extremely difficult to score well for the subject also doesn’t hurt, because it makes an A in literature seem much, much more equal than an A in another subject.
And being different is amazing in so many ways that people resort to a whole variety of methods to prove they are unique. But why would you need to perform thousands of hours of CIP, be a member of fifty two clubs and chairperson of five when all you really need to do to put yourself within that 1% is to take a subject?
Because scoring for literature is even harder than that. Right?
#2 – Literature is really easy to study for
You heard it here first and I’ll say it again. Literature is easy. That’s because it’s a skill - like riding a bike. You learn it once, and even if you don’t cycle for a few years, you’ll still be able to do it when you have to.
That’s brilliant as a subject, you know, because it precisely means you only need to revisit it the day before your exams, as long as you already understand what it’s all about (emphasis added in case advice is misinterpreted and destroys lives).
The reason why many people think it’s difficult is because they see it as just another subject you have to memorise facts for. That perception is horribly misguided. You can study literature, but you can’t quite mug for it. It is a subject in which you actually need to think and to understand, and sadly for some people that makes it the hardest subject of all time. To make things worse, effort put into studying literature can often go unrewarded. Many hardworking people become extremely disillusioned when they continuously fail their literature tests.
But if you think this shows how much of a pain literature is, then you need to be acquainted with the mantra of all lazy and somehow successful people (I am not saying I am one of them):
“If it ain’t easy, you’re doing it wrong.”
No, really. Literature seems difficult because everyone has the wrong perception about it. They think it involves hours of memorizing quotes and deciphering unintelligible language and finding meaning in absolutely nothing. But that’s not what it’s about. To do well you simply need to instigate a paradigm shift within yourself and recognize all you need to do is comment on something you already naturally know.
Say for instance, I threw you the word “Moon”. Now that word creates some kind of image and emotion in your head right? I’d guess you’re seeing a picture of a moon in your mind right now. You might see the night sky behind it, and some clouds partially obstructing a full moon, and this image tells you it’s nighttime. And nighttime makes you feel calm, or sleepy, or energized, or evil and mysterious.
You might see an entirely different image from what I described, and you can still be entirely right, because as long as you can describe how you get those images and thoughts from the word, and it’s not horribly contrived (like if the word moon made you think of definite integrals, in which case you might need help), you’re gonna be a whiz at lit.
So literature is a skill. Some say it’s hard because there’s no right answer, but isn’t it awesomely easy because there’s also no wrong answer? You’re free to write anything you want, and the stuff you write are basically things you intuitively feel. There’s no mugging or memorization required.
C'mon....the exams are OPEN BOOK.
And since it’s really not difficult, it makes sense that…
#3 – Literature makes life awesome.
I’m gonna make a new word here, cause Shakespeare did that, and so can I. This word is literaricy. It’s like literacy, only instead of meaning whether you can understand words or not, literaricy is about whether you can understand literary devices, references, and all the other amazing things words and images can do.
Literacy comes from plain schooling, and literaricy comes from studying literature and being awakened to the world of how literature works to convey meaning. It’s really amazing and it heightens your enjoyment of almost everything. Typically, products that claim to heighten enjoyment can be a little pricey, but literature is great because it is free, and lasts a really long time (pun not intended).
It’s one thing to be able to read a poem, but to be able to understand its meaning and appreciate the pure genius that went into the poet’s clever choice, inclusion and exclusion of words is another. Of course you might not care about poems, but this holds true for movies, shows, advertisements, whatsapp messages, and basically anything that involves the use of words.
With literaricy, movies become especially enjoyable because you’re able to see, clearer than anyone else, the parallels that the director puts in the beginning, middle and end of the show. You know what’s going on in Inception when Leonardo Dicaprio takes Ellen Page for her first tour of the dreamworld.
And the appropriate response is “Christopher Nolan is doing it right.” A purely literate person and a literarate person can watch the same show and come out with entirely different insights.
Once you’re literarate, you’re able to appreciate so much more in life that it’s almost as if…
#4 – Literature gives you abilities that would normally be called superpowers.
Like mindreading, because from what a person says you can infer his thoughts, motivations, and purposes, in addition to the literal meaning of his words.
And the ability to say things on a specific frequency so that only certain people get the message.
And actually write poems. Because how else did William Shakespeare make Anne Hathaway his wife?
And, really, the ability to write at all, in perfect, grammatical English. Guys, you'll realise how much of a superhero this makes you when you enter the army. Girls, you too when you start doing university level projects with less-than-ideal groupmates.
So, yea, superpowers, and what’s truly great about them is that…
#5 – You actually keep them for the rest of your life.
You’re never really going to forget how to ride a bike. Because literature is a skill more than a subject, art more than academics, you’ll almost never lose it.
All the effort you’re putting into memorizing formulas and keywords is going to evaporate the moment you finish your exams forget them. You might not ever need any of that knowledge ever again anyway, so who cares?
But you’re going to be talking, typing, reading and writing almost everyday. And the lessons you learn studying literature will be applied on a daily basis. Even if you tried, you couldn’t shake off the habit of choosing exactly which words you’re using to say exactly what you’re trying to say. You’re not going to be able stop yourself from analyzing the words you encounter in your day to day life. Trust me, I’ve tried.
The hard part about literature is that you really need to understand and internalize what it’s all about. But that is what makes it truly great, as I’m pretty sure somewhere in the thesaurus, ‘understand’ has a synonym called ‘long-term memory’. When you really grasp something that well, it’s really, really hard to lose.
In the end, you’ll continue to benefit from all the awesomeness, distinction, awareness and superpowers that literature bestows upon you, long after you forget what Lady Macbeth says in 1.5. about spirits that tend on mortal thoughts.
I’m not saying it’s better than any other subject, just that it’s better than what people give it credit for. It's true that you can learn all these lessons elsewhere too, except literature lets you do that in school. Awesome, right? So if you’re interested in something that’s valuable, applicable, and lasting, literature might be for you.
Of course, if you’re not confident of scoring fine in the subject, even when it’s really not that hard…well then let’s just say that, unfortunately, there’re some things in this material world that are more equal than others…