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Friday Interview: Importance of Literature

Elizabeth Kantor discusses her politically incorrect guide to literature

Today, Carolina Journal Radio’s Mitch Kokai discusses the importance of literature with Elizabeth Kantor, editor of the Conservative Book Club and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature. (Go to http://www.carolinajournal.com/cjradio/ to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)

Kokai: You have degrees in English, including a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina. I can understand literature is important to you. Why should literature be important to everyone?

Kantor: Literature should be important to everybody because literature has been such an important part of education and of civilization for thousands of years. If you look at some of the first writings that we have about education at all, if you look at Aristotle’s Politics, he says that nothing is more important than that young people — young men in his day of course — learn to love what’s noble and to turn away from what’s base and what’s bad and unattractive. That theme — that literature educates people to love what’s good and to aspire to nobility — is something that you just see over and over again in people who are talking about why it’s important to read literature. Sir Philip Sidney says essentially the same thing — in the Renaissance, he says literature, poetry, civilizes. The philosopher, he says, can give you a bare and thorny argument, but the poet let’s you see virtue in her natural beauty. So, you know, it’s important that people learn facts, it’s important that people learn principles, but human beings also have to decide what people they want to be. And literature gives people pictures and stories that attract them to what’s really good and that inspire them to be heroes.

Kokai: Educated people have studied literature for centuries. Why is it studied much less often now?

Kantor: What happened in college English departments is complicated, but there was kind of an intellectual revolution, I guess beginning in the ‘60s and going through the ‘80s in a lot of English departments, which questioned the whole project of literary education, of literary study. And [it] said essentially, “Why should we be teaching what’s called the canon — the traditional great works of English literature — Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, et cetera?” The accusation was made that that canon — which consisted mostly of, you know, you’ve heard the phrase dead white males — had been selected in order to prop up the privileges of white people, of males, of Westerners. I’m not sure — well, I guess I should say I don’t think that charge was really ever proven — but on the basis of that assumption, the works that were taught began to be selected differently, and the purpose of literary education was changed. I tend to think pretty highly of the really old-fashioned, the Aristotelian, the Sir Philip Sidney sort of moral reasons for studying literature. But also, aesthetic and sort of truth or philosophy-based reasons for studying literature were — you know, that whole range of justifications for literature that said this work of literature is great because it’s beautiful, because it’s true to human experience — were sort of shunted aside, and people started to argue that our selection of literature should be picked and used for, kind of, social engineering reasons, to write historic wrongs against women or against people of color which I think was really getting away from literary education and into things like amateur politics and amateur philosophy.

Kokai: Recent reports, including one from North Carolina’s Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, show that many colleges have programs that would allow students to graduate with an English degree without ever taking a class on Shakespeare. Is that a shame?

Kantor: That is a shame. I saw ACTA’s [American Council of Trustees and Alumni] Vanishing Shakespeare study, and also the Pope Center’s study about in North Carolina — I think it’s 48 percent of universities — you can have an English major without studying Shakespeare. That does seem like a pity, and I would call on folks who teach English to ask themselves if they are not willing to build a curriculum around works of literature that they can defend as being the best works, the ones that are the finest in the English language.

Kokai: One thing that struck me in your book was the way in which you analyzed thoroughly a short poetic passage. I believe it was from John Donne. Why is it important to do something like that?

Kantor: First of all, just because one of the benefits of a literary education is in looking at language very carefully and how it’s used and what sort of effect it has on you. I mean, language is absolutely central to being a human being. And you know, we are persuaded and inspired and soothed, and we learn by language, and we’re deceived by language, and we’re enlightened by it, and it’s very important for us to understand how it works. So that would be one reason to learn how to do a very close reading of a piece of poetry. Another reason would be to appreciate what great art is. In order to understand something, it makes sense to take it apart piece by piece and look at how each piece fits into the whole. And, I mean if you look at a Shakespeare sonnet word by word, and you ask yourself, why is this word and no other word in this place and no other place – which I call “Reed’s Rule” in The Politically Incorrect Guide, after Professor Mark Reed at Carolina — then you will see that in every instance Shakespeare has chosen the best word, or at least certainly a better word than you could have thought of yourself for that place in the poem and that effect. And I think one real value of literary education is appreciation as well as understanding of the accomplishment of the great writers in the English language.

Kokai: People who would like to boost their own appreciation of literature, or a parent who wants to ensure her child is going to appreciate literature in a meaningful way, what are the best things for them to do?

Kantor: That’s really why I wrote The Politically Incorrect Guide, because I was afraid people are missing out on the kind of literary education that would be a great benefit to them. So what I’ve done is, I have spent eight chapters doing kind of a broad outline and a speedy run-through of what I think is a good sampling of the best literature in the English language. And I’ve put together also a curriculum — a thing you can make your own curriculum out of, books you shouldn’t miss — essentially a course list. And then at the end of the book, I’ve got a couple chapters on how do you do literary analysis? How do you read closely? And then finally, how can you make literature a part of your life even if you don’t have time to study it? You know, what kind of social activities did people used to do, built around literature? You can read a Shakespeare play with your friends. How can you upgrade what’s on your bedside table to reach a little higher for something that doesn’t require all that much effort but really gives you a lot more? So there are a lot of suggestions in the book.