Why do we read old, stupid English literature?

“Why do we read Beowulf?” Mrs. Whitley asks towards the end of class one day. I hadn’t really been paying much attention, and I wasn’t going to write the blog post that night because I was instead going to put it off until the last possible day I could do it (now!). I have mulled that question over in my head for a good while now since she initially posed it, and I’m still not exactly sure what my answer is.

The best answer I can come up with is this: it creates an understanding of literature and how it has progressed throughout history. Instead of failing to understand the significance of certain literature in today’s world, we are able to process it and understand where it fits in the historical spectrum. It has helped us to understand that the time period, living conditions, and other human factors all play a heavy role in the literature that is published and read among the masses. People read Beowulf because it reminded them of what was important at the time, people read the Canterbury Tales because it was important at the time. We can read literature now and understand the significance of it, and do so without missing the larger point of whatever it may be that we just read.

We can understand why science fiction has boomed in recent years, because we understand that within the context of society it makes perfect sense. Literature is always a great view into the more casual aspects of any given time period, and an excellent indicator of what was important to those who lived at that time. Whether it be religion, sex, money, or technology, the literature of a day tells what was important to the people.

So in that sense, it’s not that it is particularly important to understand the specific time periods and the literature that accompanied them, as much as it is to understand the larger concept. It is important to understand that the downturn of the economy is not only going to affect us financially, but that we will also see a shift in literature. The incompetence of our government will be reflected not only in public opinion, but literature as well. Some of the most popular shows on TV look back to much better times in our country’s history (Mad Men to the 60s, Boardwalk Empire to the Roaring Twenties), because no one wants to look at America today. Much like how people only wanted to talk about God, and how great he was at everything back in the day.

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