Introduction to Literary Studies

“Yet, when he smiled, when we shook hands, the baby brother I’d never known looked out from the depths of his private life, like an animal waiting to be coaxed into the light."

—James Baldwin

Would you rather be a lover or creator of funhouses? This is the question John Barth asks in his short story collection, Lost in the Funhouse, but it’s a useful metaphor for our purposes in understanding the differences between reading a story and understanding the craft that goes into one. After all, a funhouse—with its many scares and amusements—is designed to thrill and excite those who pass through it; those who love funhouses don’t think about how it was designed and constructed to produce those excitements—if they did, the funhouse would have failed them.

 

The formal study of literature produces much the same paradox. As readers of a story or an essay or a play or a poem, much of our pleasure is produced unconsciously; we read, in other words, as if in a dream or a pleasurable trance produced by the text and are thus not necessarily conscious of all the layered components that have gone into its production. But the study of literature demands that we wake from our dreams; it demands that we examine the mechanics that make the literary experience possible. Certainly some readers would prefer only to dream, and for them, the formal study of literature is acutely painful; others, tragically, become intoxicated with powers of criticism and never really return to their dreams. The best readers are those who become something like lucid dreamers, able to indulge in the pleasures of reading, of loving literature, but also capable of speaking as creators and critics, calling upon more sophisticated explanations for the dreams of literature and their effects on readers and others in the world. To use Barth’s terminology, we must both love and work to understand our literature.

 

This course is founded upon that goal, and similarly by the belief that literature offers a unique form of knowledge unobtainable by outside mediums. Thus, in this course, we will wake ourselves from dreams by developing a critical vocabulary that allows us to precisely describe the ways in which an author writes and a reader interprets a work of literature. We will immerse ourselves in four unique genres, develop a conscious grasp of form, and learn to read and discuss literature in an informed and critical manner. Above all, this course will emphasize the many ways in which developing critical reading skills immediately enriches the emotional and intellectual experience of a literary text. 

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