‘What are you planning to do with your English degree?’
Some version of this interrogative is the first and often only response I get from people who wonder what I’m studying at university, whether they be friends, family or strangers. It is not asked with distaste or even disapproval but with an awkward mixture of curiosity and concern. There is an edge to the polite inquiry, a scepticism masked by the performance of courtesy. I can sense it in the slight pause that always comes after I reply, ‘I’m studying English Literature,’ I can see it in the way their faces morph into a careful blankness, uncertain what to do with the information, even though they had ventured to ask it. All of a sudden the burden of carrying the conversation falls squarely upon me. There is an expectation I have to fulfil, an expectation I have already failed to meet, hidden in the subtext of that query. What are you planning to do?
To be sure, coming from a Chinese household and background, choosing a major in English Literature at a university in the UK is a privilege in more ways than one. Most immediately, my family – my father being the sole breadwinner – are financially stable enough to afford overseas education and not just any education but an education in the arts. Economic privilege enables me to choose my major out of passion not out of necessity, without having to worry about the exigencies of survival. This is aided in no small way by the fact that I am lucky enough to have parents who are liberal in their beliefs about higher education and career paths and have no objections ideologically to my pursuing a degree in English (at least, none that have been expressed). In Singapore, where I’m from it is still somewhat taboo to pursue a degree in English Literature, the ‘softest’ and least promising of all the arts.
For what is ‘English Literature’? What does it mean to study literature and more to the point, why would you study it? People generally have a good grasp of the visual arts, even of performance art, but invoke the field of English Literature and Pandora’s box of assumptions and preconceptions is opened, crowding the space between you and the person you have to explain yourself to. Anybody can read a book. I read books all the time! My secondary school English teacher was so boring, I barely paid attention in her class. What’s the use? How are you going to get a job? We’re not living in the 19th century anymore. I don’t see the relevance, therefore there isn’t any. These feelings haunt every English student out there, subconsciously trying to justify studying books and poetry in the era of Twitter and TikTok.
As late capitalism settles into its dogged rhythms and cycles, the cultural indifference to and even scorn for, the study of art and literature becomes increasingly more insidious. Advocating for literature and the arts in general, in a time when its value seems depleted feels like a fool’s errand but it is now more than ever that the mental habits, social awareness and emotional sensitivity that literature cultivates must be reasserted. For that is the true value of literature in any society, in any era: to develop in people an inclination towards critical thought, critical feeling. To live as Socrates advised an examined life. Far from being an abstract ideal, this has practical implications for the way we engage with culture and politics on a daily basis, the way we engage with ourselves and others.
It is a cliché to claim that reading and literature foster empathy but it bears clarifying that this means empathy in a politicised sense – the ability not just to see from different perspectives but to see through false equivalences, to understand that not all perspectives are created equal and to prioritise accordingly. What other discipline is shaped so deeply by the intersection between history, culture, politics and personal life?
Literary texts – both oral and written – are a reflection of aesthetic tastes, a vessel through which a particular person or culture’s psychology and intellectual pursuits are channelled. If art imitates life, then it is a doorway into the lives and minds of people whom we will never meet, both past and present, memorialised in a novel or painting or song. Literature is historiography, anthropology, psychoanalysis.
‘Poetry’ – and by extension literature – ‘is not a luxury,’ Audre Lorde wrote, ‘It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.‘ That is its ‘use.’
‘Habits of reading are not confined by the classroom; they are in the broadest sense public practices,’ Kevin Sharpe and Steven N. Zwicker write in Reading, Society and Politics in Early Modern England. ‘The health of democracy depends as much upon forms of literacy and modes of reading as on institutions and constitutions.’ This is as true now as it was in early modern England, perhaps even more so, what with the rise of meme culture and the spectre of misinformation.
Perhaps a renewed focus on the importance, indeed necessity of literature in a society increasingly given over to spectacle and capitalist motivations would provide the key to a more fulfilling collective way of life. Reading, after all, shapes individuals, and individuals participate in and make up a society, which we are all implicated in. In this respect, literature is arguably an essential pillar of life, the most fundamental one because it touches everyone’s lives in some way, however fleeting or profound.
We would do well to remember Albert Camus’ words: ‘Great ideas, it has been said, come into the world as gently as doves. Perhaps then, if we listen attentively, we shall hear, amid the uproar of empires and nations, a faint flutter of wings, the gentle stirring of life and hope.’