Here is this week’s topic:
- When somebody mentions “literature,” what’s the first thing you think of? (Dickens? Tolstoy? Shakespeare?)
- Do you read “literature” (however you define it) for pleasure? Or is it something that you read only when you must?
As a former A.P. English teacher, I love this topic! It’s so deliciously subjective, yet not! It was actually one of my favorite discussion-starters in the classroom. I would ask similar questions at the beginning of the school year and then again in the spring. I think the discussions were so interesting because these questions tap into issues of taste, elitism, quality (what is it? who decides?), the classics, why we read, etc., etc., etc… In fact, this topic almost makes me miss teaching A.P… O.k., the feeling passed as images of towering papers and never-ending recommendation letters bombarded my brain…
Anyway, here’s what I think “literature” means — fiction that is complex, challenging, and thought-provoking. By complex, I mean themes that confront my previous perceptions of myself and the world and force me to either adjust or redefine my reality. I just finished (literally 30 minutes ago) Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and was struck by the simplicity of its plot and characters (only 2 main characters), yet the profoundity of its imagery and theme. It was dark, dark, dark, yet I was left with some tiny sense of optimism too.
Now, for the sake of full-disclosure, I also really enjoy the occasional Nora Roberts and am anxiously awaiting my sister’s copy of Sophie Kinsella’s latest! Would I consider either of these to be literature? Nope. Do I care? Nope.
But I definitely think there is value in determining value! I think anyone who achieves true quality writing (original, ground-breaking, profoundly affecting) should be acknowledged — and experienced — even if we don’t “like” the subject matter. I am so impressed by and grateful to anyone who is able to reach the highest levels of their endeavor. For example, I don’t watch college basketball as a rule, but I’m really looking forward to watching two #1 seeds go at it this weekend.
Or maybe a better metaphor — if not a little obvious — would be diet. I think of “literature” — whether the classics or current Pulitzer prize winners — as the staple of my reading diet. They nourish and challenge me in ways that my delightful Emily Griffin or Marian Keyes do not. But one cannot live on broccoli alone!!
I would love to hear how others respond to this topic. Please feel free to leave a comment! Here’s a question bound to get people stirred up: Do we have a moral responsibility to read works that challenge us?