If you are an avid reader, I clasp you to my heart, whatever and why ever you are reading—for pleasure, escape, knowledge, social concerns. There are a myriad of good, and even mediocre, books and poetry that can keep us entertained, or give us vicarious experiences of unknown places and times, or inform our opinions on social issues.
But what I am here to advocate, and why I have started this site, is that Classic Literature—truly Great Literature—is something different, something especially worth treasuring, preserving, learning about, experiencing, re-reading, and pondering. The experience, the grace given to the mind and soul, is a larger, higher experience than that offered by the average popular novel or poem or drama, well-crafted though each may be.
Devoted readers of the Classics know this from experience, yet defining the exact qualities that make a piece of literature “Great” is never easy. Not that many lovers of literature haven’t tried. In another post, I’ll tell you about some writers who have said things about classic literature that I find persuasive. But let me take my own stab at it here. My main purpose in this post is to start readers thinking about what makes classic literature great, and what it gives to readers that most books can’t. So here goes!
Four Qualities of Classic Literature
1. Great works may present and explain something about their own times, but also observe something larger and lasting about the human condition.
A great work does convey the writer’s intentions, quite clearly, contrary to what some contemporary theorists argue. A great writer has something specific to say, or perhaps, more typically, a big question to ask about the nature of the world as it was in the times of that writer. But a great work also observes truths about the human condition as it occurs in any age.
A great writer examines the world as she or he sees it and communicates consciously to the reader about those observations. But in addition, a great work can also convey things a writer has observed unintentionally, unconsciously. If so, the intentional design of the work is well-formed enough to encompass whatever messages may be unintentional, so that the work feels like an organic whole, where all the parts belong.
2. Great literature is based on ideas that are startling, unexpected, unusual, weighty. or new.
Great literature makes us see or think things we never did before. The ideas underpinning the work challenge our accustomed categories and ways of thinking, putting minds on edge. We may agree, and also we disagree. Some cherished beliefs are expressed and affirmed, making us feel less lonely. But also our assumptions are interrogated by what we read. We have to flex our minds, make them get bigger to try to understand everything we are reading.
3. Great literature is fine art. As such, it is aesthetically marvelous.
Either the style of a great work is incredibly interesting and beautiful, or the drama leaves us breathless, or the characters or scenes are so expertly drawn. We are lifted from our ordinary mode of being and given mental and spiritual refreshment from the high aesthetic experience of reading great literature.
4. Great literature is complex enough to offer us something new every time we read it, especially at different stages of our lives.
Like all great art, great works are based contrast and tension—not just conflicting characters, but also conflicting ideas, images, and viewpoints, allowing room for readers to entertain all sides, not just one idea the writer may be featuring.
Why Great Literature is Special
Much late 20th century and early 21st century theory argues against the “specialness” of great literature. According to many of these creeds, texts are just texts, of varying cultural value depending on political and social circumstances. Classic literature, these theories argue, should be regarded with caution or even suspicion for its probable role in perpetuating socially unjust assumptions woven into the culture.
Nonsense! Most literature we now regard as classic has been, and still retains the power to be, deeply subversive—and I mean subversive in the most positive way, granting us the ability to question outworn or unjust or too-small assumptions and to grow our minds and the quality of our thought.
Speaking of minds, I think I’ll end this post with an argument that even a die-hard materialist or a be-littler of classic literature would find hard to refute: scientific proof!
What Shakespeare and Wordsworth Can Do for Your Brain
Check out this recent article in The Telegraph that announces:
‘The works of Shakespeare and Wordsworth are “rocket-boosters” to the brain and better therapy than self-help books, researchers will say this week.’
According to this article by Julie Henry, The Telegraph’s Education Correspondent, researchers recorded volunteers’ brain activity while they read Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and T. S. Eliot. Then they translated the same texts into simplified modern language and scanned the volunteer readers again:
“Scans showed that the more ‘challenging’ prose and poetry set off far more electrical activity in the brain than the more pedestrian versions.”
They also found that reading poetry triggered the autobiographical centers of the brain, where personal memories are, which encouraged people to re-evaluate their own past experiences.
Wow! Scientists have documented that reading boosts your brainpower. But not just any kind of reading. ONLY Great Literature can supply rocket fuel to your mind.
Don’t you want yourself some of that?
*Photo by MJ Booklover. Natchitoches, LA. 2014.
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.