The ‘It’s Just A Book’ Conundrum

by Emily Thorburn


If I were to ask you to picture a scientist, I imagine your answer would be something along the lines of ‘white lab coats, test tubes, chemical reactions and awe inspiring discoveries’. However, if I was to shake it up a little and ask you to picture a literary theorist, a writer, a perhaps a historian, the task may well become a little harder. While you may describe someone nose deep in a novel or taking part in an archaeological dig, it is a little harder to put your finger on exactly what these professionals do.

I’ll admit that asking you to merely describe a professional group in a few words may seem like a pointless activity, yet it is done to demonstrate the preconceptions that we hold about different subject areas. Think of science, think curing disease and sending men into space. Think of the Arts and think of an elderly professor (potentially wearing half – moon spectacles) in the literary equivalent of a bat cave. But how true are our presumptions about science and the Arts? And in our technological, fast paced world, is their still a place for the Arts at all?

These are two very meaty questions to pull apart but as a student of English literature, they are ones that I have been engaging with for the last three years and I am keen to shed some light on. Whether I like it or not studying literature has always got me confused and bewildered looks, or begged the question like ‘so I’m guessing you’d like to be a teacher?’ or (and this is by far the worst) the ‘but it’s just a book’ discussion. Believe me; if you ever want to send vein popping rage surging through a literature student, use that line on them. I dare you.

The fact is, remarks like that are offensive because they are not based on logic or reason, but rather ignorance. A lack of understanding about why the Arts are significant is to lack awareness of various elements of out our society today. Take looking at our past, for example. Literature is a form of social history and can be used as a method of answering questions about our past.

Take the feminist movement, an entire section of world history that can be traced through literary sources, from the expansion of the novel and primarily male writers to the rise of the female writers, in both the UK and across the Atlantic, such as Charlotte Bronte and Edith Wharton. This continues through to texts expressly about the Woman’s Movement, for example Henry James’ ‘The Bostonians’ and the rise of feminist writers such as Ruth Adam or Jocelynne Scutt. World history and events, depicted through world literature. Of course, something a prominent as the Woman’s Movement is ongoing and will continue to be depicted through literature.

Another example, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, where writers, photographers and other media professionals served to represent and tell of the violence that ensued. It could be argued that it is the role of artist to communicate with the masses about such events, to give an accurate representation of exactly what is happening. Troubles literature has been a booming industry in Ireland, with people eager to see how violence can be represented in a literary form. It is the role, and arguably the moral duty, of the artist to speak of such issues and challenge our ideas of them. What’s more, issues of violence are, as you can imagine, not always the easiest to talk about or portray, however, literature and writers are able to remedy this, creating almost a ‘language of violence’ – a language that helps us to be able to speak of the unspeakable. Writers are also capable of using this language to give a form of expression to groups of people who may otherwise have remained silent.

Of course, the Arts are also important for more upbeat reasons. Take British humour for example, sarcastic, dry, a love of satire, the ability to poke fun at one another – all traits that have stemmed from the Arts. Take Oscar Wilde, a playwright whose work still has me giggling like a little girl. And why? Because at a base level it is recognisable, it is British humour. However, born into a Victorian Society, with strict moral values, it is arguably that it is people like Wilde who challenged the status quo and paved the way for what we now take for granted as British humour. Of course, I’m not attributing all features of sarcasm and satire to Wilde, nor am I saying that he was the only influential figure, moreso that his successes, as well as others should be celebrated.

By understanding and appreciating the importance of the Arts, we are in a sense, being presented with a gift: the gift of interpretation and understanding. In a world of mass media, where we are constantly bombarded with information, the ability to recognise the significance of things around us is a great skill. I am not meaning to downplay the achievements of modern science or any other discipline, not in the slightest. Rather my aim is promote of the importance of literature and the Arts more generally. So please, readers of Winterwind, if I could ask one thing, it is this: before you pass a novel off as ‘just a book’ consider its history, what it is representing, who it is giving voice to and what its long term impact may be. Do this, and I can state with certainty that you will understand that literature is so much more than ‘just a book’.

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