Personal perspectives ultimately define great literature
With spring break quickly approaching, many Trojans will shelve their difficult course material in favor of a trashy beach read. As they dig their toes into the sand and try to forget about the stress of midterm hell, enjoying a mindless bestseller seems like the perfect way to take a break from hardcore literary analysis and just appreciate a good story.
For me, deciding what to read on vacation is just as difficult as settling on spring break plans. Should I pick up a dense literary classic like Edith Whartonâs Age of Innocence and try to broaden my horizons? Or should I just curl up with Janet Evanovichâs One for the Money, a witty crime fiction novel that saw a 2012 film release with Katherine Heigl?
The problem ultimately arises when book lovers attempt to define âgreat literature.â With the constant pressure to expand our minds and challenge ourselves, sometimes we forget that novels written solely for entertainment can be just as valuable as political literary works.
Itâs not our fault that we struggle to balance the two. After all, weâve been taught that we should focus our energies on so-called âclassic literatureâ and snub trashy novels that wonât improve our satisfactory SAT or GRE scores.
When looking at high school and college book lists across the United States, itâs easy to notice recurring trends among required readings. George Orwellâs 1984. Ernest Hemingwayâs The Sun Also Rises. Ralph Ellisonâs Invisible Man. Weâre taught to value stories with profound themes and highbrow subject matter â and authors like Evanovich just donât make the cut.
Yet, we almost rarely channel our literary energies into these sorts of texts alone. Most high school students were exposed to J.D. Salingerâs The Catcher in the Rye or F. Scott Fitzgeraldâs The Great Gatsby, yet also managed to make time to read J.K. Rowlingâs Harry Potter series or Dan Brownâs The Lost Symbol. Similarly, reading Emily BrontĂ«âs Wuthering Heights or Charles Dickensâ Great Expectations might be mandatory for some college-level English classes, yet college students still find time to relax and enjoy recent bestsellers such as Gillian Flynnâs Gone Girl and Ian McEwanâs Sweet Tooth.
But as bibliophiles attempt to strike a balance between reading intellectually and reading for pleasure, the boundaries surrounding âclassic literatureâ become significantly blurred. Though it would seem that some literary works are a permanent fixture in the English literary canon, others become a bit more difficult to place â whether or not they warrant a mention on required reading lists. After all, a significant portion of todayâs generation considers Rowlingâs Harry Potter series mandatory reading for anyone who wishes to understand contemporary Western culture, but literary scholars stand divided on the issue.
âWe canât avoid the fact that Harry Potter is the main narrative experience of an entire generation â the children who quite literally grew up with Harry Potter,â John Patrick Pazdziora, a doctoral candidate at the University of St. Andrews told The Telegraph. âThe Harry Potter novels are simply the most important and influential childrenâs books of the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries.â
Indeed, Pazdziora was so passionate about the Potter series that he organized a nearly 50-lecture conference built around Harry Potter at St. Andrews last May. Other scholars, however, take the opposite viewpoint and find no literary merit in Rowlingâs series.
âJ.K. Rowling may be a great storyteller, but sheâs no Shakespeare,â wrote Telegraph reporter Sarah Rainey in an article discussing scholarly attitudes toward Harry Potter. âHer books, though enthralling, werenât written for academic study. Itâs an injustice to Britainâs true literary greats to pretend otherwise.â
But what makes a piece of fiction âclassic literatureâ? Should we define literary merit by how quickly a book puts us to sleep? All joking aside, allowing a privileged minority to define âgood literatureâ proves highly problematic, especially considering that much of the Western world hasnât read what some scholars consider staples of literary culture. (Even Mark Twain defined a âclassicâ as âsomething that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.â)
More importantly, relying on the âliterary eliteâ doesnât always pay off at the time of a novelâs publication. After all, much of what we define as âclassic literatureâ today was met with poor critical reviews when first released. The Catcher in the Rye might have received praise from The New York Times during its publication in 1951, but other outlets found Holden Caulfieldâs voice in the novel whiney and overly pessimistic. BrontĂ«âs Wuthering Heights went largely ignored by the reading public and received mixed reviews at its 1847 release. Similarly, Jane Austen only rose to popularity after her death in 1817.
Perhaps whatâs most important, then, is making an emotional connection with the stories we read, whether that connection is prompted by Rowlingâs Harry Potter or Toni Morrisonâs Beloved.
âWhat really knocks me out is a book that, when youâre all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it,â says Holden Caulfield in Salingerâs The Catcher in the Rye. âThat doesnât happen much, though.â
This spring break, try following Caulfieldâs philosophy. Read for pleasure without worrying about a novelâs critical reception or about improving your vocabulary. Always wanted to try 50 Shades of Grey? Go for it. Sick of trying to tackle War and Peace? Donât beat yourself up too much.
After all, even the most studious intellectuals need a break.
Carrie Ruth Moore is a sophomore majoring in English. Her column âCover to Coverâ runs Thursdays.