One of the pleasures of reading the Greats: spotting the Themes.
To Kill a Mockingbird, War and Peace, The Grapes of Wrath, The Lord of the Rings, Murder on the Orient Express, whatever your current and longtime favorite fiction may be: where do such great stories come from? Whether a story comes largely from the writer’s imagination or directly from true life experience, great works of fiction are never just raw reports of events, whether real-life or imagined. Every fiction is shaped by a multitude of artistic choices designed to give readers an experience, a sense of craft, or even beauty. Often, a great novel or short story shares a new way of thinking about life. In fact, most fiction we cherish as classic is shaped by interesting and weighty ideas. To enjoy these works to the fullest, be on the lookout for ideas that guide the narrative—in other words, its Themes.
Let’s look at one example to see how the Themes, the ideas, can shape an author’s true and raw experience into a great work of fiction.
Classic literature is like this beautiful Live Oak tree in Natchitoches, Louisiana: it lasts for hundreds of years, growing in beauty and complexity every time someone regards it.*
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 a future 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 preliminary stab at it here. My main purpose in this post is to start a discussion in a forum here on the site about what makes classic literature great, and what it gives to readers that most books can’t. So here goes!