- Correspondence to Dr John Launer, London Deanery, Stewart House, London WC1B 5DN, UK;
Contributors John Launer.
When I was at school I had an English teacher who taught us how to read literature very closely. We might spend a whole hour looking at six lines of a Shakespeare sonnet or a single paragraph from one of Jane Austen's novels. Our teacher had been trained in the golden age of English studies at Cambridge. He was influenced by some seminal books about how to read literature carefully. These included Practical Criticism by the literary scholar I A Richards,1 and Seven Types of Ambiguity by the poet William Empson.2 Books such as these showed that any single line of great writing could be mined to great depths for complex meaning and insights into human life. Their writers believed that understanding literature wasn't about gaining a fuzzy impression of what the author might have meant, or like a visit to a historical theme park. It was a combined intellectual, emotional and moral enterprise to discover what the greatest minds of the past were trying to convey. It was akin to the reverent attention that previous generations applied to the Greek and Roman classics, and followers of the world's main religions brought to their scriptures—and still do.
In recent years, a number of people have proposed that literary studies should form part of the curriculum in medicine as well, either at medical school or in postgraduate training. Some have even set these up within programmes for teaching medical humanities. Others have done so as free-standing ventures, driven by …