‘The person who doesn’t read lives only one life. The reader lives 5,000. Reading is immortality backwards.’ Umberto Eco
One of the most exciting and challenging aspects of being a teacher of secondary English and Literature is finding the right match between students and texts. If we move too far beyond the maturity level of the students, we lose them, or, even worse, turn them off literature entirely. Yet, if the subject matter is too easily accessible, if there are too few leaps of thought, interpretation, or emotion to be made, then there is little scope for growth or learning.
Facing this challenge leads to the consideration of the broader question of why students are required to study literature at all. What is it about literary fiction that has resulted in its distinctive status as compulsory all through secondary school?
There are, of course, some obvious, tangible benefits derived from the development of strong reading skills: reading is required in all subjects; reading improves vocabulary; reading about specific topics allows you to increase your knowledge in that area; and reading literature models good writing.1
But why fiction? Although the reading of literary fiction, above all other reading, is demonstrated to develop vocabulary2, the other listed benefits do not seem to capture anything singular about the study of literature. The benefits of teaching literary fiction specifically, might not always seem as tangible as some of the skills listed, but I propose that they are more important. Indeed, research suggests that through fiction1, we learn empathy and through high quality fiction2, we become more comfortable with ambiguity and more able to keep an open mind before we make a decision or judgement.
Empathy and an open mind seem particularly important qualities in our increasingly polarised world. A world in which a voracious twenty-four hour news cycle combined with a parasitic social media environment is fracturing humanity into self-isolating clans which view all through a prism of binaries –black-white, good-evil, left-right.
Literary fiction, in contrast, avoids these reductionist and simplistic tropes. Instead, it makes its nest in the grey areas of life, recognising the value of both a view point that prioritises, for example, Anna’s Karenina’s duty to her children and husband, and another that foregrounds her desperate need to escape from the crushing oppression of her married life; it encourages an appreciation of the moral question marks around Chief’s decision to smother the lobotomised McMurphy at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest while demanding an understanding of the humane intentions behind the action; it requires the sharing of Nick Carraway’s admiration of Gatsby’s ‘extraordinary gift for hope’, alongside a sense that this hope is delusional and destructive. Literary fiction reminds us that, in the words of Atticus Finch, ‘you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.’
With this in mind, what we decide our students should read on their journey through secondary school takes on significantly more import. While it is clearly valuable for students to read about characters that immediately resonate with their own experiences, or experiences in which they can imagine themselves, it is, perhaps, more important to take them out of their own world. This is particularly true of those students who form part of the cultural majority and who have therefore not needed to imagine alternative world views. While for students who do not fit neatly into the dominant demographic, studying literature in which they may see echoes of themselves can help validate their identity and sense of self.
In secondary school, we need to teach the texts that students will not necessarily pick up of their own accord – be they classics that require a high level of concentration to read and comprehend or tales that explore other cultures, eras or experiences. Literary fiction is unique in its ability to take us into the mind of another so that instead of judging characters only by what they reveal to the outside world – their appearance, words and actions – the information we have for our assessment of the characters is almost infinitely expanded.
In reading literature that presents alternative perspectives, not only are we exposed to the thinking of a consciousness foreign to our own in a way that encourages empathy and understanding, but, almost paradoxically, through this act, we also come to recognise the universality of the human experience. The reading and study of literature from myriad perspectives in secondary school may well be a key ingredient in finding a path back from social polarisation. With literature’s ability to lead people to seek first to understand and take the time to really listen to those with an opposing view, society could be transformed.
Imagine a community where everyone has lived five thousand lives.
Co-director of English
 Armani, Audrey, ‘Reading as Prewriting: The Effect of the use of Literature on Writing’ (1994), Education and Human Development Master’s Theses. https://digitalcommons.brockport.edu/ehd_theses/91
2 Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley and Mihnea Moldoveanu, ‘Opening the Closed Mind: The Effect of Exposure to Literature on the Need for Closure, Creativity Research Journal issue 25, 2013, pp. 149-154. 10.1080/10400419.2013.783735.