“All you have to do is call my name..” – The Importance of Literature

“Look it’s by Charles Dickens!” My sister said as she sorted through the old Christmas cards after school. The card she was holding was a picture of a snowy scene and presumably in relation to the Scrooge we meet after he’s seen all the ghosts – the reformed man – since he’s looking a little too cheerful for it still to be Christmas Eve. She mentioned the Dickens card having only been complaining minutes before that not only am I uncool, something I’ll happy admit to probably be true, at least in terms of a fifteen year old and society’s idea of cool I’m sure I don’t even come close. But her other remark intrigued me more, that is to say her complaint that any kind of research I might be doing had no relevance to normal life, while the Christmas card incident is hardly an indicator that books and the study of literature matters but it did get me thinking. I wonder what would a world without books, or the study of them, be like? (Yes, it’s my idea of a horror movie or a dystopia but I am curious). It would certainly be different, so different in fact that it’s all but impossible to imagine. It’s not just the physical books themselves, but the ideas, characters, and concepts flow from their pages and into everyday life.

Names, books and all kinds of things crop up in the most unlikely of places. From advertisements for cider, for Daddy’s little girls (open with an Oliver Twist presumably..)

To the nod to Hamlet (with Shakespeare presumably representing London) in this Eurostar commercial.

Of course I’m not suggesting that adverts couldn’t exist without literature. The very idea..! I simply wanted to mention a couple of cases which are symptomatic of the phenomenal impact literature, authors, and their fictional creastions continue to have on society whether writers old or new, famous or relatively unknown. Their influence is felt from one fan to the millions worldwide.

I was thinking about this the other day other lunch, and out of the blue while watching Gilmore Girls, and out of nowhere a reference to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol – timely given the festivities which have recently ended – smacked me in the face. It was an exchange offered between Taylor and Luke. For those not familiar with the show, that’s these guys:

Taylor
Luke

And here’s the exchange (all you really need to know is Luke has been asked to serve coffee at an all night dance marathon for free and he wants to charge).

Taylor: “You would kick Tiny Tim’s crutches right from underneath him wouldn’t you?”

Luke: “If he asked for a free cup of coffee, gimpy’s going down.”

While only  a fleeting remark, a nod to a book that it’s presumed most viewers will have some familiarity with, this also acts as a cultural indicator of not simply the impact of literature on us, but our collective knowledge of certain characters, character traits (i.e. if I were to say Taylor is essentially accusing Luke of being a Scrooge, you’d all know exactly what I meant) and plot lines, whether we’ve read the books in question or not, they enter society almost by osmosis and so a show like Gilmore Girls or anything else for that matter can mention Tiny Tim and we all know what he’s getting at. Whether we think of this image:

Tiny Tim, The Muppet’s Christmas Carol.

Or this, is besides the point, it’s an awareness.

Fred Barnard’s illustration of Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol

But perhaps I’m doing Gilmore Girls an injustice by using it merely as representative of society’s literary awareness. Like many unlikely American TV shows, literary references abound, and they seep into viewers brain usually unnoticed – this is the kind of osmosis effect I’m talking about, I looked briefly at Pretty Little Liars and Shakespeare with this in mind some months back, but a quick Google search tells me that Gilmore Girls is well known for being a bibliophile kind of show.

Rory say’s, “I live in two worlds, one is a world of books” – which goes some way to explaining the number of literary references in the show.

Buzzfeed for instance ran an article which makes a note of all the books they noticed referenced in the show. They clock it in at a grand total of 339 books. Quite a feat given that unlike Pretty Little Liars, it’s not set primarily in a school though of course Rory does attend in some episodes.

Lo and behold Dickens appears noticeably for A Christmas Carol; David Copperfield; Great Expectations; Little Dorrit; Our Mutual Friend; A Tale of Two Cities while Shakespeare appears with his Sonnets, Comedy of Errors, Hamlet, Henry IV Parts One and Two, Henry V, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Othello, Richard III and Romeo and Juliet. Quite the list. And there are of course reference to a whole host of other authors, playwrights and poets. Worth looking out for when you next stick it on. It’s easy to consign literature to the classroom as the teacher in Gilmore Girls points out:

Believe it or not, Shakespeare probably never intended his plays to be read by students sitting at decks more concerned with getting A’s than with the fate of Macbeth. His plays were meant to be experienced, lived.

Or to the bedside table, or in my case it’s more difficult to consign as I trip into my room with stacks of books waiting to be shelved, and it’s often seen (particularly classics) as something forced upon you at school never to be considered again, but what about when you come home flick on the TV and your favourite show makes a dig at Shakespeare – you have to know who he is to find it funny. The same is true in the workplace if someone compares you to Fagin, you’ve got to know the story to be offended (or perhaps complimented depending on your view of the character I suppose..).

Literature, whatever that means to you (and I don’t just mean the classics everyone is supposed to enjoy – for me reading is much more about whether you’re enjoying it rather than what you’re reading and others opinions from times gone by of the text) is here to stay and try as you might to avoid a book, I almost guarantee you’ll be bombarded from one direction or another. Song lyrics, a commercial, it’s everywhere.

I wouldn’t necessarily advocate playing too close attention, you’ll end up driving yourself mad at the number of references to X or Y, unless, like me, you’re interested in it and then delve away – you’ll be surprised at the unlikely places literature pops up. I think my most bizarre encounter with Shakespeare to date was in the toilet. No really. A company had used Lady Macbeth to advocate washing your hands. Crazy but true. Yup, Shakespeare even haunts the stalls! But literary toilet trips aside, literature perhaps has more of an impact on our lives than we think, both on and off the page. It’s powerful stuff and company’s whether production for TV and movies, businesses looking to sell, or even up and coming authors, cash in on this.

In the words (well almost) of the Gilmore Girls theme song: where literature leads, we will follow.

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About Sarah Waters

I'm a PhD student at Oxford Brookes University researching female melancholia in Early Modern medicine, drama, and its resonances with our understanding of female depression today. I also have research interests in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, Children's Literature, CS Lewis, and The Inklings.
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8 Responses to “All you have to do is call my name..” – The Importance of Literature

  1. Pingback: “All you have to do is call my name..” – The Importance of Literature | The Shakespeare Standard

  2. jubilare says:

    You deal with literature, but your first premise was a complete lack of books! This made me think of a lack of the written word and… dystopia doesn’t begin to describe that, eh? Humans already have a short memory. Imagine if we had no way to pass information on to the next generation other than oral tradition? I love oral tradition, but yikes!

    I agree with the rest of your words too, though. The more I learn, the more I realize how interconnected all knowledge is. I cut my teeth on Shakespeare, so I am something of an exception in our current society, but it’s fascinating to figure out what HE was quoting, and the influences you find in his work! We quote him, we refer to him, but he was referring to a common knowledge-base, too, of popular culture, classics and mythologies. …like you, I’m the sort of person who finds this fascinating.

    • Sarah Waters says:

      You’re completely right and that is of course a much wider debate which I really ought to have addressed. It throws up the whole, what is literature question too. But, yes – the written word is a treasured thing and, as you note, is vital to society. Mankind’s memory is appalling and anything from to-do to ‘history-tells-you-don’t-do-that’ would be lost were books, and the written word to disappear forever. I’d hazard a guess that society wouldn’t stand a very good chance without them. Why else have past dictators burnt books? They’re powerful enough to chance minds and great as you say oral tradition is, it’s certainly limited. Ironically I’m not sure there is a word to describe a world without books. Perhaps one needs to be created – but no pens allowed in the making of this word! Yes, absolutely those fields seemingly so disparate turn out to be so intrinsically related to each other that it becomes harder to separate them.

      And I agree with your point on Shakespeare too – of course he was a thief he stole the good bits when any moment struck, so by referencing him and his words here there and everywhere today, I suppose you could say we’re only repaying the favour – or (alternatively) we’re only stooping as low as Shakespeare.

      • jubilare says:

        Hahaha! Yeah, he did steal a good bit. Though he was just doing what pretty much every writer has done throughout history. Truly original ideas are rare, if not nonexistent (now there’s a fun debate) which means that the artistry is what one does with the ideas one steals. ^_^

      • Sarah Waters says:

        Yes, that’s true. It’s certainly the adaption of ideas and rejuvenation that allows writers to make a name for themselves. That’s a fascinating debate and one which no doubt huge amounts of critical ink have been spilled over.

  3. Yasmin says:

    This is going to sound like an incredibly cheesy comment but I don’t know who I would be without books. I don’t read as much or as fast as I think I should but when I do it takes over. My brain wouldn’t be the same – what I think (the few political ideas I may have) and how I think has been influenced by books. Even my taste in men! (Kind of). My first (fictional) crushes were book characters. Also, Rory is awesome and I don’t know how to post pictures here so I’ll tweet you.

    • Sarah Waters says:

      I know what you mean – I think that so much of who I am (and I probably don’t realise the half of it) is shaped by and as a result of what I’ve read the trash as much as the classics, I think reading, that and studying English, has made me a better person and certainly more open to different ideas and viewpoints. I like your comment “my brain wouldn’t be the same” that’s exactly it – it’s almost like its altered my makeup (and no I don’t mean cosmetics), like the characters changed my character – in a good way. And agreed Rory is great, as is that pitch for a date!

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