In Veliko Târnovo

Veliko Târnovo is a former medieval capital of Bulgaria, tucked away in a forested hill region where the iconic Tsarevets Fortress looks out across the Yantra river. Travelling from Sofia to Varna last week, I spent a couple of nights in the town, visited nearby Arbanasi, and stayed at a guesthouse which, by chance, also happened to be an English school (Guesthouse Diel–recommended).

The hostess was extremely friendly, spoke excellent English, and was also a passionate advocate of the benefits of studying literature. She gestured to her heart when talking about the empathy that students should bring to studying Shakespeare or Byron, and spoke of the importance of advanced literary skills in modern society. In Bulgaria as elsewhere though, many students are unresponsive in literature classes and choose degrees that will ensure a decent job rather than learning to interpret classic Bulgarian works like Ivan Vazov’s Under the Yoke.

As heart-warming as this conversation was, I don’t mean to portray it as an ad hoc convention of the East European branch of the Dead Poets Society. Our conversation turned, as such conversations sometimes do, to the indifference about literature among general publics. Why do so few students feel the power of great writing! If only Hollywood would make serious Shakespeare adaptations! Would that Total Wipeout was replaced by ‘An Hour with a Sonnet’ on Saturday nights!

Literature is a fairly niche pursuit: lots of people don’t read much, and not all that many read the ‘classics’ in their spare time. That’s how it’s always been, and that’s pretty much fine. I don’t hear mathematicians complaining that more people don’t spend their time brushing up on calculus at weekends, and I probably would have heard if there was a dearth of people studying black holes or nanotechnology or painting. There is a large groundswell of cultural activity in Britain (think of theatres, museums, festivals, newspapers) and to judge from all the books on sale on street-corners, there is in Bulgaria too. Promoting, say, George Eliot‘s merits to others need not entail pillorying them if they’d rather read science-fiction, or get back to Facebook after listening to you.

It’s also natural that literature specialists advocate what interest them, and hope to spark enthusiasm in others. An education in the arts provides the opportunity, in schools and in universities, for those who are responsive to literature to receive support as they pursue their interest, and for others to have some first-hand experience with their cultural heritage whilst gaining valuable literacy skills. Education helps along the exchange of ideas within invisible global networks of like-minded people. But not everyone will be lit up by literature.

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