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In his essay “Disliking Books at an Early Age,” literary scholar Gerald Graff talks about how he struggled as a child to see the point of literature. “Literature and history,” he recalls, “had no apparent application to my experience.”Gerald Graff, “Disliking Books at an Early Age,” Lingua Franca: The Review of Academic Life 2, no. 6 (September–October 1992): 45–51, JSTOR. Even in college, Graff says, he “continued to find ‘serious’ reading painfully difficult and alien.”Gerald Graff, “Disliking Books at an Early Age,” Lingua Franca: The Review of Academic Life 2, no. 6 (September–October 1992): 45–51, JSTOR. This all changed for Graff when he encountered critical debates over the interpretation of Mark Twain’s novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1876). He read about critics who disagreed over the book’s meaning, value, and attitudes toward race. He realized that the conversations he’d been having with his classmates about the book in class discussion “were not too far from the thoughts of famous published critics,” which gave Graff a feeling of power and excitement about reading he’d never felt before.Gerald Graff, “Disliking Books at an Early Age,” Lingua Franca: The Review of Academic Life 2, no. 6 (September–October 1992): 45–51, JSTOR.
We hope you will feel that same power and excitement about reading as you learn about critical debates in literary study and begin to contribute to them in your own papers. Literature isn’t made up of inscrutable texts that can be deciphered only by a chosen few who have learned to speak in a secret code. Literature is written by people—talented people perhaps, but people nonetheless. And the concerns of literary critics are concerns that many people share: What does this work say about the human condition? How does it convey its message? Does it portray its subjects fairly? What political or social ideas does it advance? Literature has many potential meanings, and literary theory gives scholars different avenues to uncover those meanings.
By asking theoretical questions of the novels, stories, poems, plays, and essays that you read in your literature class, you can begin to grasp works that may seem ineffable—impenetrable—if you try to uncover a single, “correct” interpretation for them. In short, literary theory can give you a toolbox for approaching any literary text: a set of interpretive moves that can help you figure out where to start when your instructor asks you to comment on a work in class or develop a paper topic.