Literature and Modern Teaching

Literature is on my mind this week. I have had a lot of time on my hands with little else to do but sort books on Goodreads. As I add books I have read over several decades and rate them, date them, sort them, and check for similar titles I have though of recent conversations about historical pieces of literature and entertainment such as plays. I studied a fair amount of literature and language over the years and read a lot on my own. As someone that enjoys reading of all types and the development of language I am interested in more than just the story in what I read.
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A book is a product of the time leading up to it and of the cultures that impacted the author. It is also a product of the language and history of the author. I write in the English forms I learned. I learned to read in Old English with books like the King James Bible, then authors like Rudyard Kipling opened my mind to other perspectives on the cultures of the people I knew. I read everything I was allowed until I left my parents house, then I just read everything that struck my fancy. When I took literature classes we read the classics in a way that feels a little like the way churches teach scriptures.
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Classic and historic literature is presented as the shining example of how to write and what literature is as opposed to modern books. But literature is writing with enduring merit not just any historic piece that survives and not automatically discarding anything new. Some pieces are worthy of study because of their historic significance. Others are prime examples of the language of the time (as far as we know.) Some showcase the culture at the time and others protest the culture at the time. The difference can grow confused the greater the distance from present.
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What I see however is that classic literature does not mean better. I do not mean because the language is old and hard for many modern readers, that just takes the time and willingness to adapt. I refer to the continuous development of culture, language, writing forms, and moral understanding. In the same way that I grow and change over time, giving up attitudes and behaviors when I learn better; I expect culture to grow and art forms to grow. As artists we develop our skills on the knowledge and examples of the past. The masters of the past are our foundation. We strive not just to be different and new but to grow and develop, to reach people with a well developed understanding of our craft.
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I do not accept the attitudes of the past as acceptable because they were common at the time. Some authors were opposed to them even then. Yes, reading the pieces is important. Understanding them in the context they existed is vastly more important. However, I do not want to emulate them. Language has changed. Culture has changed. I am a product of a mixed tapestry of cultures, languages, people, and teachings and am not as much a product of the mass culture around me as a touchstone of oddities from our time. My writing shows the perspective of one observing the culture and interacting with it as not quite a part of it. I see this same phenomena in some classic literature.
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We can appreciate the skill of a writer that opened a genre or questioned their culture but we do not need to feel they are an example of what to be. They are a signpost of change, a piece of history to be understood, appreciated, and improved upon. Dismissing modern writing as less than because it uses modern language, modern concepts, experimental forms, new genres, or is in electronic form only does us personally and all of society a disservice it shows a blindness to the purpose of writing. Those methods, thoughts, and examples from the past developed the communication tools. Those are the tools of improving culture and writing. History and experience are the foundations of new literature to be. Shakespeare is held up as a shining example now but was written for the masses entertainment. It was the soap opera of the time not the high brow art. Sherlock Holmes stories were a newspaper serial and are a favorite sample from the time.
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Literature can come from any genre or culture and in any form. Quality writing is not limited to the past or to what publishers approve of. This is a topic I love to explore and discuss and as it keeps coming up I may well return to it again soon. But for now, I leave you with the thought that we should read broadly and consider each piece in it’s context and with it’s purpose. Remember the story behind each author and think how does it touch the audience. If it does not reach a broad audience it will only survive in a limited circle. So a piece that is considered a literary achievement by the university but that people just aren’t drawn to has no place in the world of literature. It did not achieve the goal of communication and connection and cannot endure. Quality writing is in the tone and reach not in the approved words and form.
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2 thoughts on “Literature and Modern Teaching”

  1. I know our reading culture is suffering from the modern age of mostly online internet reading in snippets. I do enjoy your blog because it’s actually reading and thinking and digesting ideas!

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    1. I think the view of the degradation of the modern world in any area like this is a consistent misconception of humanity. There will always be a mass of people that don’t care to learn more than required, a group that doesn’t know what they are missing, and the others that are split with those that want to learn and experience but are not formally educated and those that prefer formal instruction. Many books are published online, I myself read mostly ebooks and many online publications and literary competitions. The internet is a tool that can expand or numb. Snippets have their place. I don’t like the focus on super short things but I understand writing is for communication and you must reach your audience to be heard. It is an interesting discussion and thought…as an English professor asked me in this topic…What makes good literature?

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