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Why Literature?: The Value of Literary Reading and What It Means for Teaching

reviewed by Kristine Gritter - November 04, 2011

coverTitle: Why Literature?: The Value of Literary Reading and What It Means for Teaching
Author(s): Cristina Vischer Bruns
Publisher: Continuum, New York
ISBN: 1441124659, Pages: 176, Year: 2011
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In Why Literature? The Value of Literary Reading and What it Means for Teaching, Cristina Vischer Bruns articulates the value of literature and how it might be better taught in college English classrooms.  Before answering why literature is important, the introduction questions why literature has value in the 21st century.  Bruns’ rationale for teaching literature is useful for teachers of reluctant adolescent and adult readers as many do not find as much utility in literature study as those paid to teach literature.  Largely eschewing rationales of cultural studies and literacy criticism, Bruns observes that ultimately literary study should serve the reader and culminate in the creation of personally significant events for the reader.

The first chapter unpacks theories addressing the value of literature.   Some theories are pragmatic.  Literary reading is instructive in that it exercises the mind in the development of many skills of problem-solving and communication (Zunshine, 2006).  But literary reading also, at its best, produces pleasure or exalted feeling.  Pleasure theorists have mystically described rationales for reading literature.  Reading literature allows readers to enter into the lives of another, “to produce experiences of enchantment, recognition, and shock” (Felski, 2008, p.17).  Reading literature well requires performance in which a person of this world moves to another world of text.  “A reader must submit herself to its language in order to recreate its world” (p. 23), yet a literary texts takes on significance only if it “retain[s] some relationship to the world and to the selves who write and read it” (p. 24).  Ultimately, reading literature should create a “transitional space” between a psychological state and the world one inhabits that can transform a reader into a person of deeper insight (p. 30).  The formative role of literature in shaping our human lives is the ultimate goal for reading literature.

But not every work of literature transforms every reader.  Chapter Two describes the conditions necessary for particular texts to become transitional objects for particular readers.  To find heightened awareness of the world through the act of reading requires a losing of oneself in the act of reading.  Bruns calls this “immersion” in reading.  But for a text to become a transitional object, the reader must also reflect on what has been learned from the text, requiring distance from text.  Citing Wilhelm’s verbal protocols of gifted adolescent readers (1997) as they describe powerful acts of literary reading, the author claims that the formative use of literature as one reads in a transitional space cannot be directly taught.  She also notes that immersion and reflection in the reading process are often in conflict.  Readers cannot divorce themselves from reality if they are to make sense of text, yet distance from text, necessary for critical reading to learn the new, prevents immersion in text.  The way out of such conflict, the author asserts, is to consider immersion and reflection as interdependent.  

Chapter Three offers pedagogical methods so students can use literary texts as transitional objects.  This chapter is the author’s synthesis of a literature review of research studies conducted in high school and post-secondary literature classrooms.  Some troubling themes of existing research emerge: the vast divides in what literature instructors intend to do and what actually happens in literature classrooms, a spotlight on lecture as the primary mode of instructional practice, how pedagogical practices for teaching literature vary widely according to instructor, and emphasis on the instructor’s point of view when compared to that of students.  Bruns concludes that successful literature teachers show students how to get inside texts by bringing their cultural assumptions to text in order to find relevant interpretations of text.  This requires emphasis on metacognition while reading. She also observes that a focus on explicit teaching of metacognitive practices in reading may paradoxically detract from using literature as a transitional object that helps readers experience connections with text and learn from text.  This tension becomes somewhat frustrating for a literature teacher reading this book for best practices.

The final chapter outlines methods conducive to the formative use of literature.  The active reading of literature can help readers come to vital and new understandings that can transform individuals and cultures.  Although Bruns asserts these transformations cannot be directly taught, literary practices can detract or enhance the possibilities of transformation.   Opportunities for students to immerse themselves in text and reflect on text must be created by literature instructors.  Students must feel safe to voice how they connect texts to lived experiences.  They must also acquire some mediating new knowledge that helps gain entrance into literature when text becomes frustrating.  Literature instructors should guide students to articulate when they are resistant to text and push students to question their resistance.  Students benefit from explicit introduction to psychoanalytic theory in order to understand the process of becoming more generous readers.  For students to let literature attempt to change them, they must enter the protocol of text (p. 124) on the terms of the author, suspending their values in their physical world.  At the same time, instructor and students should value textual insights, experiences, and opinions as allowing co-learners inroads into a text.  The instructor should provide heuristics to provide focus and structure to literature study, but effective literary classrooms should amass accumulated knowledge of all inhabitants of a literary classroom.

The major tension of this book for me is how much time the author devotes to describing how literature classes can create atmospheres for literature conducive to creating a transitional space for students to learn while simultaneously claiming that it is not possible to teach students directly how to use literature as a transitional space.  Good readers, including Wilhelm’s secondary students, describe exalted reading experiences whetting intellectual appetites for new learning.  Somewhere, perhaps in the spaces between home and school where reading researchers have difficulty gaining access, many readers do learn to read deeply to change their static notions of the world.  This book is a good start in examining why literary reading holds great value for today.  It also begs for inclusion of autobiographical accounts of articulate but reluctant readers who discovered literature as deep learning and the teacher instructional practices that enticed them into reading.  


Felski, R. (2008). Uses of literature. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell.

Wilhelm, J.D. (1997). “You gotta be the book”: Teaching engaged and reflective reading with

adolescents. New York, New York.  Teachers College Press.

Zunshine, L. (2006). Why we read fiction: Theory of mind and the novel. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio

State University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 04, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16585, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 6:42:00 PM

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About the Author
  • Kristine Gritter
    Seattle Pacific University
    E-mail Author
    KRISTINE GRITTER, assistant professor at Seattle Pacific University, is a literacy and literature instructor of children’s literature. Her research interests include textual discussions of literature characterized by high student involvement. She has published articles about this topic in recent journals including Promoting Livelier Literature Discussion (Reading Teacher) and an upcoming article on the topic of literature discussions in tracked middle school classrooms in Research in the Teaching of English (February 2012).
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