How to Appreciate Literature

by Jane S. Shaw

Robert V. Young, an English professor at North Carolina State University and editor of Modern Age, once said that most professors of English today — the ones devoted to “theory” — really despise literature. Their goal is to attack it, not appreciate it.

That is not the case at Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center, where a University of Virginia instructor and his students teach short Russian literature classics (in English) to incarcerated young people, aged 16 to 20. Discussing literature becomes “conversation about major life questions,” writes Andrew D. Kaufman, a lecturer in Slavic Languages and Literatures.

“In such an environment [the detention center] discussions about freedom and moral responsibility, nature versus nurture, and social alienation, become very concrete very quickly,” says Andrew Kaufman in a poignant Inside Higher Ed column. “Russian writers, who knew firsthand what it means to lose one’s freedom, to be an outsider, to search for an ideal in a broken world, become strikingly relevant.”

And Hannah Ehrlinspiel, one of the student teachers, tells how the “Books Behind Bars” program reinvigorated her interest in literature.

For years I had always been taught that literature was something you had to stab at, to pick through until it gave up its most complex secrets. “Books Behind Bars” however, taught me to appreciate simplicity, to yield to the most basic stirrings of emotion caused by a genuine smile or by a beautiful simile. As a result, I got much closer to the texts than ever before, and became genuinely interested in what each work really means.

Getting close to the texts: It might be something English classes could try.

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