The Norton Introduction to Literature with 2016 MLA Update (Shorter Twelfth Edition)
Book PrefaceThe Norton Introduction to Literature with 2016 MLA Update (Shorter Twelfth Edition)
In the opening chapters of Charles Dickens’s novel Hard Times (1854), the aptly named Thomas Gradgrind warns the teachers and pupils at his “model” school to avoid using their imaginations. “Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life,” exclaims Mr. Gradgrind. To press his point, Mr. Gradgrind asks “girl number twenty,” Sissy Jupe, the daughter of a circus performer, to defi ne a horse. When she cannot, Gradgrind turns to Bitzer, a pale, spiritless boy who “looked as though, if he were cut, he would bleed white.” A “model” student of this “model” school, Bitzer gives exactly the kind of defi nition to satisfy Mr. Gradgrind:
Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely, twenty- four grinders, four eyeteeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs. Anyone who has any sense of what a horse is rebels against Bitzer’s lifeless picture of that animal and against the “Gradgrind” view of reality. As these fi rst scenes of Hard Times lead us to expect, in the course of the novel the fact- grinding Mr. Gradgrind learns that human beings cannot live on facts alone; that it is dangerous to stunt the faculties of imagination and feeling; that, in the words of one of the novel’s more lovable characters, “People must be amused.” Through the downfall of an exaggerated enemy of the imagination, Dickens reminds us why we like and even need to read literature.
WHAT IS LITERATURE?
But what is literature? Before you opened this book, you probably could guess that it would contain the sorts of stories, poems, and plays you have encountered in En glish classes or in the literature section of a library or bookstore. But why are some written works called literature whereas others are not? And who gets to decide? The American Heritage Dictionary of the En glish Language offers a number of defi nitions for the word literature, one of which is “imaginative or creative writing, especially of recognized artistic value.” In this book, we adopt a version of that defi nition by focusing on fi ctional stories, poems, and plays— the three major kinds (or genres) of “imaginative or creative writing” that form the heart of literature as it has been taught in schools and universities for over a century. Many of the works we have chosen to include are already ones “of recognized artistic value” and thus belong to what scholars call the canon, a select, if much- debated and ever- evolving, list of the most highly and widely esteemed works. Though quite a few of the literary texts we include are simply too new to have earned that status, they, too, have already drawn praise, and some have even generated controversy. Certainly it helps to bear in mind what others have thought of a literary work. Yet one of this book’s primary goals is to get you to think for yourself, as well as communicate with others, about what “imaginative writing” and “artistic value” are or might be and thus about what counts as literature. What makes a story or poem different from an essay, a newspaper editorial, or a technical manual? For that matter, what makes a published, canonical story like Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener both like and unlike the sorts of stories we tell each other every day? What about so- called oral literature, such as the fables and folktales that circulated by word of mouth for hundreds of years before they were ever written down? Or published works such as comic strips and graphic novels that rely little, if at all, on the written word? Or Harlequin romances, tele vi sion shows, and the stories you collaborate in making when you play a video game? Likewise, how is Shakespeare’s poem My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun both like and unlike a verse you might fi nd in a Hallmark card or even a jingle in a mouthwash commercial?
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