What makes a “good” book? Is it character development? Is it a riveting story line? Is it the choice of setting? In American Literature this week, we had a discussion on the literary canon and how exclusive it is, and it really piqued my interest in this idea that one book should be held above another.
A literary canon is defined as “a body of books, narratives and other texts considered to be the most important and influential of a particular time period or place,” or “a collection of works by which others are measured in terms of literary skill and value.” The term canon can be used in many different areas of literature; from the Biblical canon, which assigns works to the Christian tradition, to the Shakespearean canon, which organizes works by the author, in this case Shakespeare. However, the basic use of a canon is as a “yardstick” in order to measure literature in terms of value and validity. The Western canon is most likely what you have grown up learning in school. This includes authors such as Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, Ovid, Geoffrey Chaucer, Dante Alighieri, William Shakespeare, John Milton, William Wordsworth, Jane Austen, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, Leo Tolstoy, Sigmund Freud, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, T.S. Eliot, and many more. I would hope that you have heard of at least one, if not all, of these on this list; otherwise, I would like to know where you received your education from, because I would be quite worried for you and your fellow students. These are the writers who have been deemed worthy of being taught through the ages.
I remember reading The Iliad and The Odyssey in grade school, maybe 8th grade, and my teachers would use the readings as an opportunity to get us involved. We would each choose a character to be and would read out loud in that character for that chapter. Also, I remember that year for the school-wide gingerbread-house-making competition my English teacher, some of my friends, and I created a scene from The Iliad instead of making a normal gingerbread house. Shout out to Covenant Classical School for making classical education enjoyable.
But what makes a book “bad?” In recent history many classic and modern books have been challenged by schools, teachers, or parents to be removed from libraries and schools. Some books that have been challenged include The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, Animal Farm by George Orwell, The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, and so many more. Reasons for these books being challenged include racial slurs, sexual content, profanity, and political issues. But novels are not the only ones being scrutinized. Dr. Seuss’s Hop on Pop was challenged in 2013 by fathers in Toronto because the picture book “encourages children to use violence against their fathers,” and Shel Silverstein’s collection of poems A Light in the Attic, was challenged by parents because it “glorified Satan, suicide, and cannibalism, and also encouraged children to be disobedient and encourages children to break dishes so they don’t have to dry them.”
I have grown up being taught that there is an ultimate truth and a difference between right and wrong. However, when it comes to literature, I may have to turn from my learning. Of course, there may be some works that are absolutely awful and downright vulgar, but the books that are on these lists tend to be works that I would consider necessary for a child’s education. I could not imagine my life without the lessons I learned from The Iliad, The Odyssey, To Kill a Mockingbird, Animal Farm, The Lord of the Rings, and many others. Sometimes the point of a book is to be shocking in a way that evokes a feeling of pity and empathy for a character or a group of people. That does not mean that the book is “bad.” Just because a book does not completely line up with your belief system does not mean that it should not be taught. Just because a book “offends” you does not mean that it needs to be pulled from every shelf. Personally, I think today’s society focuses too much on what offends them and not enough on what helps others, but that could take up an entire blog post on its own.
Moral of the story: don’t be a snowflake. Read something shocking today.