16 June 2007

In praise of great literature

There is an interesting article by SF author John Wright on the online journal Implications (here). He offers seven reasons for admitting that certain books do, indeed, count as great works of literature. For example, ‘reading great books increases the pleasure one gets from merely good books.’ Or again:
it takes humility to be an elitist . . . An elitist, someone who likes great books because they are great, not because he likes them, is as humble as a mountaineer standing before a titanic, mysterious, unclimbed peak. To climb that mountain is work, at least at first, we all agree. But once you have achieved the summit, and all the world is under your heel, how far you can see! . . . The humility of a mountaineer is this: he does not think of himself as he climbs, he thinks of the rock under this fingers and toes. He did not make the mountain; he is not the one who piled it up.
My main reservation is the question of who decides which books should be regarded as ‘great literature’. I am very wary of ‘authoritative others’ creating literary canons (whether they be ‘the classics of English literature’ or ‘the hundred greatest SF books’). What purpose do such lists serve? Why are certain books chosen? Because of internal literary qualities? Or because they reinforce a particular worldview? So, while I would tend to agree with Wright’s reasons for reading great literature, I think a degree of scepticism is needed whenever someone tries to insist that I really must read this particular book because it is ‘great literature’.

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