Dear Literary Lady,
I’m in college and I love taking literature classes, but my parents say they won’t prepare me for the world and I should focus on classes that lead to a career. They say I can read novels in my own time. What do you think?
–K.C., Riverside, CA
Wow, that’s a tough one! It’s hard to argue with parents, especially when they want what’s best for you and have your future interests at heart and desperately hope you don’t become a struggling artist and wonder when you’ll give them grandchildren…sorry, what was I saying?
I’m not going to tell you your parents are wrong. I’m not going to assure you that the world is ripe with opportunity for literary enthusiasts. I’m definitely not going to tell you what to do or what to major in. Nobody can, or should, tell you these things, least of all some girl who calls herself Literary Lady and dreams about reading ten novels a day and befriending famous writers.
What I will tell you is what English literature classes taught me, and how it applies to work.
1. How to write, and write well.
Writing well is an invaluable skill, and likely one you’ll use every day. Whether you’re writing an article, marketing copy, a legal brief, or even just a very persuasive email to a client, you need to write well to succeed on just about any career path. Plus, any on-the-job writing assignment will forever seem easy to you if you’ve already written three term papers on Ulysses.
2. How to communicate articulately.
Literature classes often require you to participate in class discussion daily. You have to discuss, in front of your peers and your professor, complex thoughts around “postmodernism” and “expressions of the human condition.” This is excellent practice for all the meetings you’ll have to attend in life. For reasons unfathomable to me, people love having meetings and asking everyone to weigh in on things like “strategy.” With years of English literature discussion under your belt, you’ll excel in this area, even when you’re half asleep and didn’t do the assigned reading.
3. How to use big words and little words at the right times.
Literature teaches you the power of using big words and little words as required. Sometimes, simple vocabulary and a short direct statement has a powerful lasting effect. For example, “Dude, no.” Sometimes, you need more verbiage and extra fancy vocabulary to sound like you’re actually doing work; for example, “I’ll liaise with the relevant parties to facilitate discussion of these terms.” You’ll use both at various moments throughout your career to sound decisive and important.
4. How to read between the lines.
Much of literary interpretation requires reading between the lines—how else would we know Niccolo Machiavelli was being satirical in The Prince or that Shakespeare had a sense of humor? Work life requires much of the same. You’ll spend a lot of time sussing out what people are really saying in their emails, and predicting what your passive-aggressive coworkers want from you.
I may say some of this in jest, but the truth is studying English literature gave me a foundation of skills that have been helpful in my career pursuits and daily work life. I’ve never regretted what I studied, and never felt ill-equipped because of it.
My parting advice? Figure out some career paths you’d be interested in pursuing. Talk to your parents about what you want to do, and how literary studies and all your other classes specifically contribute to that. Parents tend to worry less if you actually have a plan.
Love and paperbacks,