I've been reflecting lately on what qualifies something as "good literature." I admit it, I'm a bit of a snob when it comes to books. I have been known to hide children's books in closets and under furniture, hoping to avoid the painful experience of re-reading them. I've also been known to get home from the library with a new book, read it to the kids, and then hop on Amazon to buy a copy for our family. Good books ought to be owned, re-read, and treasured!
The kids and I have discovered a few new gems (and a few groaners) this month from our public library, and that's what got me thinking. Here's my proposal for a definition of good literature. I'd love to know what you think!
A good book is one that gets better each time it is read, and invites readers to notice more and more intentional artistry. Sometimes literary art comes through in perfectly delightful rhyme, other times through playful allusions to other great books. Sometimes pictures are literary masterpieces themselves! The story must be well-told and well-crafted so that subsequent readings don't uncover "holes" in the plot or characterization. Above all, a good story must speak to the reader about herself in a way that illuminates her own life experience.
The Art of Biblical Narrative. Alter calls narrative in the Bible "prose fiction," not because he doesn't think it's true, but because he sees it operating in similar ways. Ingeniously, he says, "We learn through fiction because we encounter in it the translucent images the writer has cunningly projected out of an intuitively grasped fund of experience not dissimilar to our own, only shaped, defined, ordered, probed in ways we never manage in the muddled and diffuse transactions of our own lives." (156) In other words, good fiction is good because it tells us about ourselves in a way that we can't see from our own vantage point. A good writer is a deep thinker with insight into how things really are. That's what makes Arnold Lobel one of the most brilliant writers of 'I Can Read' books who has ever lived. Frog and Toad make us laugh because they are like us. (Who really wants will power anyway?)
A bad book, on the other hand, is one that parents loath re-reading to their kids. The rhyme doesn't really work. The pictures lack creativity. The plot has holes or is entirely absent. Life is too short to read bad books. I recommend hiding them (or donating them to your local Goodwill).
Perhaps this is why after all these years I'm still studying the Bible and loving it. The Bible is not the only good book, but I have to say that the more I read it, the better it gets!