People schooled and practiced in history, look at artifacts and listen to contemporary accounts, in order to learn about present and past human activity. From these specifics, historians develop general descriptions and theories. For example, they ask, “What patterns are emerging from this study?” Their answers help everyone see the past, understand the present and navigate the future.
People trained and experienced in literature, encounter stories, poems and other forms of literary art—in order to understand the individual human. From these literary expressions, students build knowledge of our common experience. For example, they ask, “Who is this person?” and “What does it feel like to be this person in this world?” While using the artist’s guidance to answer such questions, literature students need to imagine precisely.
In some literary circles, people discuss artistic merit. Through scholarly debate, they try to establish the better or best story. For example, they may claim a story has too much unnecessary detail or is too predictable. How elegantly, in other words, does the author sew together the various artistic threads?
Such literary debate, however, has its limitations. The more enduring value comes from conjuring, comprehending and appreciating the lives of individuals—for example, Gogol in Jhumpra Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake. Although this first generation Bengali-American is named for the Russian author of “The Overcoat,” not until the final moments of the novel does Gogol begin reading this short story. It has taken him thirty years to open the book—the book given to him by his father, the book that saved his father’s life, the book that gave him his name. Lahiri’s novel helps readers understand why it took Gogol so long to turn to page one, and how his experiences mirror those of other individuals struggling to make a new home in a new country like the United States.