Why and How do We Study Literature?

Why do we study literature? Well, I tend to think that we study literature in order to understand the message behind the superficial text. Words don’t always mean what they literally mean; perhaps they imply a completely different message, whether it be optimistic or something more sinister. If all texts meant what they literally read as, what’s the difference between exploring a book’s world versus walking outside? Hidden meanings provide writers and authors a method of emphasizing a certain message that readers often find more satisfying once they discover the secret. A personal example of mine can be found in my previous analysis of Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle”, where I discovered that the author was providing a form of console for his readers –this book was published during the peak of the Cold War. Evidence of this was found from the espionage plot-line, where the conclusion left readers with the message of “you have done everything you can, all you can do is pray and hope”. Although it may sound very bleak, Dick provides a realistic, down-to-earth–yet still hopeful–expectation that doesn’t fill his readers with false hope. Again, I dug out this message through analyzing brief dialogue sprinkled across the entire novel, taking out certain quotes and characterizations of certain protagonists.
But then the question arises: how do we study literature? Because each author has their own writing style and personality, there is no direct formula that allows the reader to force out the deeper meaning of the text. Based on my personal experience, I tend to first read the superficial text, and understand the literal meaning. This allows me to understand what the author knows contextually, as they must at least know what they’re writing about in the first place. Secondly, I try to decipher a certain tone towards the piece itself. Is it positive? Negative? Neutral? Once I determine one of these three, I then try to pick a certain adjective that captures the essence of the literary piece. Sometimes, it may be more than one, or just be too complex to be described by adjectives, but a usual example could be “frustrated” or “confused”. Once that is determined, I keep this author’s tone and mindset as I reread the text, feeling around if certain phrases sound differently with this new context. This may come in the form of certain comparisons, motifs, or even literary devices such as alliteration. More often than not, I am able to connect multiple dots (collected from reading with a different perspective) to create a general idea of what the author is trying to convey. In order to solidify this new message that I’ve garnered from the text, I would delve deeper in to the piece and find more evidence that would support my hypothesis. Through this method, I am able to not only understand the literal story that is often used to entertain the reader, but also grasp the deeper message that the author is trying to portray subtly though their work.