Literature Meant to Reflect, Not Enhance, Experience
Had Thomas C. Munro (Letters, March 18) wanted to parody the position he holds, he hardly could have done a better job than writing, "the purpose of the English department is to help you increase your pleasure in reading." This claim seems odd under any circumstances, but one can imagine situations where it would sound downright perverse: "I'm taking a class on holocaust literature so I can get more pleasure out of reading those books."
Perhaps Munro's reading has never strayed beyond the odd John Grisham novel, in which case his analysis might be justified. However, Grisham is not normally taught in English departments, and with good reason. Literature is one of the oldest means we have of making sense of experience, and it exists not to entertain us, but to help us understand ourselves and the world we inhabit.
Literary scholars help us interpret literature, contextualizing it and helping us to grasp its relevance. The study of literature does not give us an increasingly clear picture of what the world is actually like, as the hard sciences do, but instead reflects the world as we see it. There is no measurable progress toward any determined goals in literature because our understanding of the world changes constantly.
Like any specialized field of study, literary theory has its own specialized language. Because there are no hard-and-fast rules for what is right and what is wrong, this language is undeniably subject to abuse, and I have had to sit through my own fair share of lit crit nonsense. However, it is a completely unjustified jump from saying that literary theory is sometimes misused to saying that the field as a whole is without purpose. If Munro were to put down his Grisham and read some challenging literature or some relevant theory he might find that there is far more to literature than simple "pleasure." DAVID W. EGAN '00 March 19, 1999