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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.
G. R. Lomer, ed. The Student’s Course in Literature.

Introduction: How to Study Literature

By Gerhard Richard Lomer (1882–1970)

The Aims of Literary Study

AMONG the finer pleasures of life, that afforded by literature is perhaps the most general. By far the greater part of the reading that is done in the world to-day is done with a view to realizing that peculiar and elusive stimulation which comes only from the printed page. It combines emotional expansion, æsthetic sensibility, and the activity of the imagination. To read for pleasure requires no justification, for joy is one of the fundamental aims of all art.

Many people, however, use literature rather as a means for obtaining specific information on some subject in which they are interested, than as one of the fine arts of life. In certain instances it is of course safer and more satisfactory to get one’s information at first hand from the thing itself; but there are many subjects on which such direct information is not available, and the individual is forced to seek for facts that have been recorded by others and for results that have been written down. This method of referring to books for facts and information of all sorts is one of our chief ways of gaining knowledge nowadays; it has become a habit with the educated, and its prevalence is indicated by the thousands of reference libraries continually in use throughout the country.

In addition to reading for pleasure or play, or for specific information or work, there is a third aim which the reader may have, and it is one which has received the approval and encouragement of such men as Bacon, Arnold, Ruskin, De Quincey, and a host of others. Personal development and what is vaguely called general culture are not the least among the aims of literary study. Matthew Arnold has shown how the study of literature develops in the reader those two admirable qualities of “sweetness and light,” which sum up the achievement of ages of intellectual and spiritual development; and De Quincey points the way to the literature of knowledge and power, which place within our grasp the secrets of control and of inspiration, of culture and restraint.

The Function of Literature

Generation is linked to generation by the inheritance of imperishable things. We of the twentieth century are the inheritors of the greatest gifts of all previous ages. Our art, our music, our science, our social institutions, our religion, and our literature are transmitted to us by those who have toiled and fought for the maintenance of what was best in life. Not the least of these great inheritances which are handed down to us by the past and which are the foundation of our present civilization, is literature. There are no limitations of time or space to this inheritance, and no diminution in the transfer. The literature of every century and of every land belongs by a right inalienable to the reader of to-day, and the world’s best literature thus preserved and thus handed on from one generation to another means not only the best literature of all the world, but the best for all the world—man, woman, or child, past, present, or to come. The modern student who begins to read widely in the writings of ancient days or of other climes is beginning, whether he knows it or not, to take possession of this inheritance which has been handed down to him by those who have gone before, without restriction and without deduction. One of the functions of modern education is to convince each individual that great literature belongs to him as an intellectual birthright and that it is his for the asking.

Literature, as one looks at it in perspective, affords an enthralling airman’s view of the course of civilization and of the progress which human development has made from century to century. Far in the distance we see the vestiges of literature in the making showing still the rough virility of all primitive literatures. They belong to an age which is, from our point of view, very far off, very simple and vague; and their literature seems, to sophisticated modern taste, to be lacking in the finer qualities of high art. It is nevertheless the true reflection of their life with all its simplicity, with all its vitality, with its anthropomorphic conception of life. The eye then passes over in rapid succession the placid and enduring literatures of the far East with their characteristic philosophies, their naïve love of nature, and their acceptance of human life as it is. It sweeps by the majestic ruins of Greek and Roman civilization, past the confusion of the Middle Ages and the glories of the Renaissance, until it reaches the confines of the modern world with its ideals of culture, with all its scientific self-confidence and material pre-occupation, its proneness to self-analysis, and its ultimate and shocked discovery of its thinly veiled barbarism. Every phase of life in every age shows itself clearly in this vast extent of literature, as in a chart of the course of civilization.

Outside of actual “busyness” with life itself, the study of literature provides the student with the best possible means of self-education and of widening and deepening personal experience. Nowhere else will he come in closer contact with a larger number of the greatest minds. The celebrities of his own day he may see at a distance, but the great men of all ages come to him when and where he will, so long as he has a book to call his own. One of the most potent forces in education is this contact with great minds, and in a library the reader is in the company of the mighty. All that they have said upon the fundamental issues, experiences, and aims of life he may hear if he but have an ear. “Hunger and labor, seed-time and harvest, love and death”—these are the significant human activities, and these are the fundamental inspiration of all great literature. The best things that the keenest minds and strongest hearts have thought and felt about these universal experiences are the enduring ideas that the student can take as a basis upon which to build up the fabric of his own ideals.

It is not only with great minds, however, but also with great subjects that literature brings the student into vital touch. The energizing power of a great civilization is one of the most potent factors in the development of the individual. The expansion of the modern world, the development of science, the conquest of the material world, and the voyages of exploration that are being made into the hitherto unknown regions of the human mind—all these are full of significance for the modern student and inevitably fraught with inspiration for the literature of the next age.

In addition to becoming familiar with the world’s greatest minds and with the world’s greatest subjects, the student develops within himself the power of seeing the world from new points of view. He who has read widely and well no longer sees through the spectacles of his grandfather. Literature is for him a means of personal emancipation; he begins, even if in bewilderment, to “see life steadily and to see it whole.” It gives him a new conception of the significance and responsibility of the individual, and it throws into a new light the meaning of social control. He no longer sees himself and others as in a glass, darkly.

But valuable as all of these functions of literature are, they sometimes seem of less consequence than the indubitable power which literature has of providing for a harassed and weary spirit an avenue of escape from the humdrum activities and the monotonous satisfactions of ordinary life into those ever new and illimitable spaces of the imagination where “gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades for ever and for ever.”

Methods of Literary Study

Every teacher has his own method of studying literature, and there is probably no one best way. All that we can do here is to glance briefly at some of the methods that have commended themselves to serious students. Perhaps the simplest and most usual method of studying literature is to select a particular country and to follow in chronological order the development of its literature from simple and distant beginnings throughout the manifold changes of its history down to its complex modern manifestations. Such a method of study has the advantage of showing the close interaction of literature and history, of indicating how the individual and society work together for the development of ideals and institutions, and of explaining the ultimate significance of great men and their works. This method is particularly satisfactory because the ground has in most cases been carefully mapped out and affords the student a well-planned and interesting itinerary through the pleasant lands of literature.

For the more advanced student a method frequently used is that of taking an individual author and of studying his life and work in detail. This method may be a miniature reduction of the plan that has just been described with regard to countries as a whole; that is, it may be based upon a minute study of the biography of the individual with the aim of showing how his works grew out of his experiences. Or it may seek to trace the development of his characteristic outlook and his attitude to life as he saw it. It may even interest itself in the somewhat limited consideration of his particular technique and ideals of craftsmanship when these are especially individual, striking, or influential.

A third method of studying literature which may be used after the student has acquired some familiarity with the general development of the literature of a country and some knowledge of the lives and works of individual authors is that of tracing the progressive development of some specific literary form, such as the sonnet or the novel. This method seeks to find the origin of the chosen form and the influences which brought about its development. It attempts to trace the interactions of one writer upon another and of one country upon another, and it considers the individual achievement and the ideals of the most notable writers who were associated with the development of that particular form of composition. Its point of view is more than local or national. Its purpose is comparative; its method, interpretative; its scope, all literature, of all times and places.

The student who is particularly interested in the more restricted field of literary technique will find it profitable to study in detail from this point of view the style of an individual author with reference either to his peculiar personal characteristics, or to his relation to other writers from the point of view of indebtedness or inspiration.

The student of judicious and logical mind may perhaps be more interested in the critical study of literature than in any of the four methods already mentioned. The critic, it may be noted, tends to be predominantly either an interpreter or a judge. If the former, he will seek to interpret the significance of a work of literature in one of three different ways: first, by explaining it as an organic whole with a definite structure and interrelated parts (e.g., Tennyson’s ‘The Princess’); second, by indicating the importance of its place in the development of literature at a crucial moment (e.g., Wordsworth’s ‘Lyrical Ballads’); third, by showing its significance in individual experience or as a revelation of the soul of an author (e.g., Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’). But if the student prefers to judge rather than to interpret, his function will be to evaluate or estimate a work or an author, to place him in his proper literary category, to praise or blame according as his desert is. To this high office not many are called. The ability for such work is rare. The preparation is long and arduous. Between really sound and effective literary judgment and the mere ephemeral “obiter dicta” of the dilettante there is an enormous distance, and he who would be set up as a judge must preserve a proper humility of spirit. In the matter of standards, he must know the ancients, but he must also be acquainted with the most recent of the moderns. Literature is not bought and sold by the pound, but is of the spirit and in spirit must it be judged. Let him, then, who would teach others himself first go and learn the greatness of literature and feel its power.

Suggestions to Teachers

A problem which faces every teacher of literature at the present day is how to strike a practical mean between an old-fashioned and haphazard selection of reading without any definite relation to the child or his interests, and an equally undesirable over-organized and prescribed course of reading which leaves little room for personality or individual adjustment. There can be no doubt, however, that experience has shown that much more is accomplished by a carefully systematized or graded course of reading than by an unorganized smattering or entirely free browsing, at least as far as the hypothetical average pupil is concerned. The chief problem for the teacher is one of selection, and it is, unhappily for the vitality of her teaching, a problem that only too frequently has already been solved by a board or a principal. One might go so far as to say that the individual selections which the teacher uses will take care of themselves, provided she has intelligently worked out to a practical solution the problem of selection and has adjusted the rights of the two chief factors in this problem: her growing, developing pupils and the recognized norms of a fairly stable society, for both have their rights and both make their essential contribution to the solution. On the one hand there are a number of immature individuals who are to be educated as social personalities; on the other hand there are certain modes of experience which the history of the human race has found practical and desirable; the problem of the teacher is to adjust these two in that educative process in which she is the mediating factor.

It becomes necessary, therefore, to have ideals of accomplishment and standards of activity, and these ideals and standards must be based as much upon a knowledge of the nature and capacities of children as upon the history of literature or familiarity with particular selected masterpieces. The lowest aim which a teacher can have is to expect her children to memorize certain facts about literary selections which are arbitrarily prescribed; her highest aim should be to have them go from her classroom with a deeper appreciation of the beauty of literary expression and a higher respect for literature as an interpreter not merely of life in general but also of the restricted outlook of any pupil in a grade school. To this end she must have a definite set of standards; she must know what a classic is and how to treat it; and she will not make a bad beginning if she “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the simple prescription of Matthew Arnold that “there can be no more useful help for discovering what poetry belongs to the class of the truly excellent, and can, therefore, do as much good, than to have always in one’s mind lines and expressions of the great masters, and to apply them as a touchstone to other poetry.” In other words, the teacher must know what is good in literature and why it is good. She must have an ideal in literature for her students just as she must have an ideal of mathematical correctness, or of conduct in the class-room. What she desires is that her pupils shall approximate perfection in mathematics or in spelling; what she should desire in literature is that they shall approach the best, that they shall come under its influence and, so far as in them lies, realize that it has within its pages something which their ancestors and the world at large have handed down to them as being good and great and worthy to be possessed.

Arnold Bennett has defined a classic as “a work which gives pleasure to the minority which is intensely and permanently interested in literature,” and Matthew Arnold, if we may quote him again, advises us with regard to a poet that “if he is a real classic, if his work belongs to the class of the very best (for this is the true and right meaning of the word classic, classical), then the great thing for us is to feel and enjoy his work as deeply as ever we can, and to appreciate the wide difference between it and the work which is not of the same high character. This is what is salutary, this is what is formative; this is the great benefit to be got from the study of poetry.”

It is with a view to bringing within the reach of all school pupils those portions of the world’s literature which are best suited to their mental grasp or to their comparatively restricted experience that the list of Graded Readings has been prepared. This carefully arranged course of reading for school children may be made the basis for all work in literature or it may be used as a source from which the teacher will select whatever supplementary reading is necessary according to the time at her disposal or the needs of her pupils.

One must not, however, fail to realize—and this is true of parent as much as of teacher—the enormous value and the stimulating power of uncontrolled or free reading on the part of a boy or a girl. The danger has always been that when a pupil was turned loose in the promiscuous collection of books to be found in the ordinary library, he would choose works which were perhaps too mature for his early years, or which expressed ideals or tastes to counteract which he was not yet sufficiently well provided. Any pupil can, however, with perfect safety be turned loose in a library of THE WORLD’S BEST LITERATURE which has been selected in such a way that only what is of permanent value is preserved.

Finally one must never be oblivious to the fact that the child is constantly striving to see the meaning of life, to organize as best he can his small stock of ideas, and to enlarge his hitherto limited experience. The ordinary contacts of social life provide a daily means for this organization and enlargement, but one must never forget that literature which sums up the best that men and women have thought and felt about life is one of the sanest and safest means by which a child can be helped to see the meaning of his own experiences and to arrange into some sort of workable system that “blooming and buzzing confusion” which he finds round about him and within.

Suggestions to Parents

The social significance of parents is to be found, from the point of view of modern education, in their responsibility as executors of the race in transmitting to the next generation the inheritance of the past. The duty of parents, therefore, is not fulfilled with the economic provision of food, shelter, and clothing, but includes also some higher provision for the sustenance and development of the mind and the spirit.

There are two truths which should always be kept in mind in this connection: in the first place, children have a right to the best, and to provide them with anything less than that is poor economy in the long run; in the second place, children have a right to be taught in youth those habits which will provide them with intellectual comfort and permanent pleasure in later years. They should, therefore, form the habit of reading good literature while they are in this formative period of childhood, and they should learn to appreciate those subtler pleasures which all art, when properly understood, can provide. The problem for the parent, therefore, is to supply his children with what is permanently valuable in literature, for the child, if left to himself, will satisfy somehow or other this fundamental need. No satisfactory substitute has been found for the story hour, and the significance of this lull in the day’s activities no mother would deny. In the Graded Reading list for the earlier years, there will be found a wealth of material admirably suited for re-telling to the child, and ranging from the primitive fable to the best fairy tales of modern times.

As the child grows older and has mastered the mechanics of reading, he should be encouraged to read independently and to form the habit of amusing himself in the field of literature. This activity of his may best be directed by the careful supervision of his parents, since neither the books in the average library nor those that come daily from the press are as a whole above criticism as literature for children. One should be on his guard, however, against making reading in any sense a disagreeable duty and against forcing it upon children so that they come to regard it as a distasteful task. Let them find out for themselves the peculiar pleasures of the privilege of browsing, and let them discover the thrill which Keats had upon first looking into Chapman’s ‘Homer.’

Suggestions to Students

Students with the best intentions frequently waste time and become discouraged because they do not discover sufficiently early the most efficient means of reading. The following suggestions are made with the hope of saving the student who is studying alone from expending an undue amount of energy without accomplishing satisfactory results:

1. First of all convince yourself that the course of reading which you are about to undertake is worth while and, if you can, become really enthusiastic about it. If possible do the reading with someone else, for in this way your appreciation will be doubled.

2. Be systematic about your work: begin at the beginning and work steadily towards the end. Do not think about the next course until you have finished the one on which you are engaged.

3. Go slowly but surely, remembering, as Leigh Hunt says, “By dint of doing a little, or even a very little, every day, there is no lover of poetry and beauty who in the course of a few months might not be as deep as a bee in some of the sweetest flowers of other languages.”

4. Form the habit of organizing your ideas: guard particularly against letting an idea go in at one ear and out at the other, as it will be sure otherwise to do; practice recalling at the end of reading a selection the main ideas about which the author has written; and, if you are reading a poem, memorize a striking or felicitous quotation as the nucleus for associated ideas.

5. Make up your mind that one of your objects in reading the world’s best literature will be to develop in yourself definite standards of taste and of judgment, and that you will eschew the cheap and the ephemeral until your taste is more assured.

6. Use your reading to supplement your somewhat limited experience. Make yourself familiar with other centuries than your own by reading the history of the great men and nations of the world. Enlarge the limited sphere of your travels by reading descriptions of countries as they were seen by the great travelers. Increase your capacity for ideas and emotions that are beyond your present stage of development by reading the poetry, the essays, and the philosophy of men and women who were noted for their lofty thought, their keen sensibility, or their deep emotion.

7. Become gradually more and more susceptible to the beauty of style and literary form, remembering always that your taste requires an arduous course of development and continual familiarity with the best in order to become excellent.

8. Learn to use literature as an increasing source of entertainment, joy, or consolation, remembering, as Matthew Arnold reminds us, that “more and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us. Without poetry, our science will appear incomplete; and most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry.”

9. Guard, particularly in the early stages of your study, against being discouraged or turning aside from your purpose if you do not immediately realize the satisfaction and the pleasure of reading. Appreciation of all art is a slow and subtle process and its satisfactions are intangible and rare.

10. Above all, guard against the fault of hasty judgment; and remember that, if you do not like a book or a poem, the fault may lie in you just as much as in literature.

11. Read with concentrated attention, with open-minded patience, and with generous understanding, for out of these grows enthusiasm for the printed word.

12. If you are reading for the sole purpose of study, plan your work systematically and economically by following one of the College Courses, and by setting aside each day a definite time for study even if it be no more than fifteen or twenty minutes. Regulate as far as you can the conditions of efficient study by seeking a quiet, comfortable place, well lighted, where you may read with an alert and undisturbed mind. Do not let the amount of reading that you have to accomplish discourage you; take things easily and by small stages, and be thankful that there is so much to read, remembering that, as A. J. Balfour says, “it is perfectly possible for a man, not a professed student, and who only gives to reading the leisure hours of a business life, to acquire such a general knowledge of the laws of nature and the facts of history that every great advance made in either department shall be to him both intelligible and interesting; and he may besides have among his familiar friends many a departed worthy whose memory is embalmed in the pages of memoirs or biography.”

13. Let not all your reading, however, be for serious study or self-discipline, but read frequently at random in a leisurely way and for the mere pleasure of reading. Do not regard the classics as books that it is a painful duty to be acquainted with, but rather as notable portions of human experience which it is a privilege to be able to add to your more limited life.

14. Work outwards from a particular selection as from a centre by learning the biography of an author whose works you are reading; by becoming acquainted with the spirit of the age in which he lived; by growing familiar with the form of writing in which he excels; and by formulating for yourself what you conceive to be his characteristic ideas or points of view.

15. And lastly, connect your reading with the rest of your life, seeing each idea in relation to something else by reflecting upon what you read and by talking with others about it, remembering always that you are talking English prose.