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What Makes a Book Great – A Reflection on Classic Literature

A little rant written several months back, posted since it still reads relatively well.
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It’s sad, but also interesting to see, the lengths that people will go to excuse themselves for not reading any good literature.

A little while ago, I (foolishly) engaged in a conversation on a Catholic Literature group (the group should really call themselves neither Catholic nor a Literature group). One of the members asked people to post a comment with a book that “everyone likes but you hate.” The members of this group began to post mainly names of classic books, ranging from lesser, but still good, works like To Kill a Mockingbird to works that would appear in any list of very good classics, such as books by the Bronte sisters, by Charles Dickens, Anna Karenina, etc. (“Charles Dickens is a hack,” was on of my “favourite” comments.) I made an offhand comment that this group did not seem very literary and was immediately greeted by a storm of protest. “It’s just a matter of taste,” was the usual argument. “Only some of us like these books, and it is obvious that these are books that most people love since that’s what the post was for.” How can that be, when many people commented the name of the same classic book over and over again? Obviously, it is not such a “loved” book as these people were trying to tell me. A book is not a classic because many people love it – at least not anymore, as is the case today. A book is a classic because it has lasted down through the years and time and again has proved to be a Great Book. A book is a classic because it has good messages and universal themes that all can relate to in some way. Stating that you “want to punch the characters because they are so awful” has no relevance whatsoever. I recently read Kristin Lavransdatter, which received the Nobel Prize in Literature. I detested the main character and because of that, I found it very difficult to finish the book. However, I could not help but admit that the writing was exceptional and that at times, had great emotional influence on me because of its relation to my own life. That is what makes a book great.
It is rather sad to see how many people will declare that they either detested a book or “could not get past the first few pages/chapters” because there was “too much” description; these people usually phrase this complaint as (usually) “it was too boring” or “it was too slow” or (less often, since most people will not want to admit this) “it was too difficult” or (a laughable comment from the aforementioned post) “I had to pretend it was a video game to get through the book.” The first comment is what I most often hear when I ask someone if they have read the books after they profess their love for The Lord of the Rings. “It was too slow,” is what I hear people comment on most of my favourite books, whether it is a classic or even one of my modern favourites. “It was too slow,” is the comment placed on any book in which the author takes his or her time to develop the plot and describe the surroundings so that the reader can really be immersed in the world of the book he is reading. “It was too slow,” complains the modern-day reader, whose attention span is developed just enough for the latest Hollywood action movie.
Such readers tell us that “the fact that these people actually read the classics that they detest show that they do actually read literature.” Perhaps, but the fact that many of you admit that you did not move past the first few pages is alarming. There also remains the fact that most of these have not read any classic books besides what they were “forced to” in high school (what a sad phrase – “I was forced to read that” – to describe the act of reading as to be pinned down until one has finished a grueling, despicable task which should be pleasurable).
And finally, those of us who delight in the fact that we read good books are told to stop lording it over those who do not. “You can read whatever you want, darling,” these people tell each other. “It’s all a matter of personal preference – no book is really good than another. These people think they’re better than us just because they read classics.” Perhaps reading a book that is no more difficult than reading the label of a cereal box would be fine if these people were still in middle school, but when one is on the cusp of adulthood – or already an adult (although adult seems to be a relative term in this day and age with people who seem to be perpetual infants) – it is rather sad. Our world today consists of people who are never interested in broadening their minds beyond the latest Stephanie Meyer or John Green book. They read only for sensationalism, for the next Fifty Shades of Grey.
Where are the people who still read to broaden their minds?

One thought on “What Makes a Book Great – A Reflection on Classic Literature

  1. I completely agree with you! It’s such a pity to me that so many today haven’t even read most classic books. There is so much depth and talent in classical novels that are still relevant to us today. There is no limit to what we are able to learn through reading these books.

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