I was talking to a friend about this class, and she thought it seemed quite strange that an English class would spend so much time studying works that, on the surface at least, don’t seem to belong in an English class. I mean, the syllabus has us discussing movies, a television series, and popular music albums. We’ll be analyzing the lyrics of tracks with such erudite titles as “Fuck tha Police” and “8 Ball”. It seems like we’ll definitely be exploring the fringes of what most people consider to be literature, and I think this is an important thing to note as we discuss our society’s movement away from reading.
People may not be reading as many books nowadays, but does that necessarily mean we are producing less literature? Could it just be that ‘literature’ is expanding to include more nontraditional media forms such as movie scripts and rap lyrics? A dictionary.com search of the word literature yields: “writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features…” Sounds like a pretty broad definition to me. I don’t see why song lyrics couldn’t fit into that, certainly many use expression, and song form often borders on poetry. We even use the adjective ‘lyrical’ to describe prose passages. So while it may seem like not as many quality books are being written or read these days, you cannot argue that our generation hasn’t produced some astounding works of art, many of which could be considered literary works. With the development of a global music recording business, independent film, and the explosion of television, the last fifty years have allowed musicians, film directors, and even television writers to use language to communicate their themes and ideas in ways never before possible. Isn’t that literature?
Now, I’m not saying that Katy Perry connects with any “ideas of permanent and universal interest”, but there are certainly many lyrics that do, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t treat an album of that merit any different than a book of poetry. Perhaps in these new forms of literature we can find comfort despite the (arguable) decline of that oldest of literary works, the novel. I, like many of us, never seem to get as much reading done as I’d like to (I’ve been inching my way through infinite jest since October), but I take a little comfort in the fact that maybe listening to the lyrics of the new Animal Collective album or watching The Royal Tenenbaums is at least partially a study of literature.