Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Literature: an Acquired Taste?

On the first page of the final chapter of Rita Felski's Literature After Feminism, a chapter entitled "Values," Felski claims that "Those who value Shakespeare and Shelley, Dickens and Dickinson, have learned to do so." At first blush, this statement rang true for me. I remember first reading Shakespeare in eighth grade and finding myself frustrated by its complexity, getting nothing out of it, until my first class period in which we discussed it. It was only after explanation and elaboration by my teacher that I could appreciate the beauty in what I now truly believe to be a literary masterpiece.

Our class discussion on this chapter in Felski, however, provided a different perspective. Multiple classmates recounted their first experiences with Shakespeare, citing an immediate appreciation and even awe for the bard's wordcraft, even before they had learned anything about Shakespeare or his reputation and place in our canon of "great literature." The class seemed to be torn on whether any of our literary tastes are inherent to our personalities or if they instead solely products of our backgrounds and educations. While many said that their appreciation for works like Shakespeare was pre-educational, I still would contend that predispositions toward certain literary qualities have to originate from some manner of life experiences. Surely a fetus, taught to read, would not prefer Shakespeare over See Spot Run, or vice versa. Later conversation with a classmate, however, made me consider that there may after all be certain qualities that all humans are hard-wired to appreciate. It has been proven that the eye reacts positively to certain ratios in images such as the Golden Rectangle, complementary colors are more pleasing than other combinations, and certain intervals between musical notes sound better universally than others do. Perhaps then, there are qualities that are universally more pleasant in literature as well.

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