In this guest post, acclaimed author Warren Adler offers an impassioned defence of the study of English Literature and the Humanities and how majoring in English has made him who he is.
I am a proud, grateful, and militant holder of a degree in English Literature. It has enhanced and enriched my life in ways that have given me insight into the human condition. It has introduced me to the great communicators and storytellers of ages past, offering wisdom, knowledge, joy, insight, clarity, and the essential power and civilizing influence of words.
I have spent a long and fruitful life surrounded by some of the great minds and amazing imaginations ever recorded, and I continue to populate my mental compendium and physical library with many more. I cannot conceive of a life without the close friendship of great storytellers like Joyce, Trollope, Thackeray, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Austin, and the literary gods of our own American culture like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Roth, and many more of equal worth. Indeed, without the tutelage and wonder of Shakespeare, what would we know about the truth of human behavior?
The case for literature and its study has long been made. From the days of our distant ancestors who told their stories on the walls of caves and in scrolls, the Word has long been the essential channel to knowledge, understanding, and insight. Without such communicators we would be bereft, lost in the jungle of ignorance.
It has been claimed that an English degree will not place one on the top of the job list, that such a degree offers fewer opportunities for earning potential in the face of technological skills and specialties that our society currently demands for its commerce. Compounding this is the decline of job choices in the Humanities. Even the potential for careers in academia is becoming increasingly diminished. This is true not only in English studies, but also in subjects such as Philosophy, History, Ethics, Greek and Latin, and Classical Studies.
There has always been a deep chasm between commerce and art, and there are those who choose to spend their lives in the study of subjects that have deep intrinsic value to them while having dubious commercial ambitions. These artists stubbornly and blissfully follow their calling. It is as necessary to them as oxygen. Those with this mysterious calling will never find contentment if they abandon or compromise their purpose.
I could not conceive of having made any other choice but majoring in English Literature. The great storytellers that I befriended through their books, and the teachers and students who chose to live within that circle with me, inspired me to stake my life and future in creating works of the imagination, my stories. I never had a choice.
Yes, the decline of the Humanities challenges our present. Ultimately though, their pursuit is essential to our culture, and sooner or later we will realize that there is truth to the old chestnut ‘man does not live by bread alone.’ Its necessity will come roaring back.
Warren Adler is the author of more than 40 novels and several stage and film adaptations. Currently in development is the Hollywood sequel to The War of the Roses, titled The War of the Roses: The Children, along with other projects including Capitol Crimes, a television series based on Adler’s Fiona Fitzgerald mystery novels, as well as a feature film based on Warren Adler and James Humes’ WWII thriller, Target Churchill, in association with Myles Nestel and Lisa Wilson of The Solution Entertainment Group. You can read more about this and Warren’s other projects at his website.
Image: Pile of old books (author: Lin Kristensen), Wikimedia Commons.