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 Wharton’s Age of Innocence and try to broaden my horizons? Or should I just curl up with Janet Evanovich’s 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 “great literature.” 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.

It’s not our fault that we struggle to balance the two. After all, we’ve been taught that we should focus our energies on so-called “classic literature” and snub trashy novels that won’t improve our satisfactory SAT or GRE scores.

When looking at high school and college book lists across the United States, it’s easy to notice recurring trends among required readings. George Orwell’s 1984. Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. We’re taught to value stories with profound themes and highbrow subject matter — and authors like Evanovich just don’t 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. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, yet also managed to make time to read J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series or Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. Similarly, reading Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights or Charles Dickens’ 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 Flynn’s Gone Girl and Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth.

But as bibliophiles attempt to strike a balance between reading intellectually and reading for pleasure, the boundaries surrounding “classic literature” 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 — whether or not they warrant a mention on required reading lists. After all, a significant portion of today’s generation considers Rowling’s Harry Potter series mandatory reading for anyone who wishes to understand contemporary Western culture, but literary scholars stand divided on the issue.

“We can’t avoid the fact that Harry Potter is the main narrative experience of an entire generation — the children who quite literally grew up with Harry Potter,” John Patrick Pazdziora, a doctoral candidate at the University of St. Andrews told The Telegraph. “The Harry Potter novels are simply the most important and influential children’s books of the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries.”

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 Rowling’s series.

“J.K. Rowling may be a great storyteller, but she’s no Shakespeare,” wrote Telegraph reporter Sarah Rainey in an article discussing scholarly attitudes toward Harry Potter. “Her books, though enthralling, weren’t written for academic study. It’s an injustice to Britain’s true literary greats to pretend otherwise.”

But what makes a piece of fiction “classic literature”? Should we define literary merit by how quickly a book puts us to sleep? All joking aside, allowing a privileged minority to define “good literature” proves highly problematic, especially considering that much of the Western world hasn’t read what some scholars consider staples of literary culture. (Even Mark Twain defined a “classic” as “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”)

More importantly, relying on the “literary elite” doesn’t always pay off at the time of a novel’s publication. After all, much of what we define as “classic literature” 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 Caulfield’s voice in the novel whiney and overly pessimistic. Brontë’s 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 what’s most important, then, is making an emotional connection with the stories we read, whether that connection is prompted by Rowling’s Harry Potter or Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re 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,” says Holden Caulfield in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. “That doesn’t happen much, though.”

This spring break, try following Caulfield’s philosophy. Read for pleasure without worrying about a novel’s 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? Don’t 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 “Cover to Cover” runs Thursdays.