A colleague forwarded a link to “Does Great Literature Make Us Better?” from the New York Times. The author, Gregory Currie, queries whether reading great literature can actually “refine our moral and social sensibilities”. This article got me thinking and I thought I’d jot down my thoughts.
- How do you define ‘great literature’? Is War and Peace by Tolstoy a great piece simply because it is a long book (that could double as a doorstop) written by a famous dead Russian? By the same token, how can we deride Twilight when it has introduced a new generation to reading?
- Who wants to have their moral and social sensibilities refined? I actually read for escapism and rather enjoy my brain cells running kicking and screaming to the nearest exit.
- History is rife with people of who have been silenced or marginalised throughout the centuries. Is it possible for ‘great literature’ written predominantly by dead white men to reform anyone’s social sensibilities apart from their own target audience?
- Does it matter if the ‘great literature’ was written centuries and sometimes millennia ago? When I last sat down and read Tacitus I didn’t get the urge to fight for glory of Rome and attack the Welsh nor did I adopt Plato’s views of social systems when I read bits of The Republic. Is this a personal failing or does the quality of ‘great literature’ get diluted over time? I confess I did think about pick-pocketing after reading Oliver Twist but as I can’t sing to save my life and am law-abiding, I wisely decided not turn to a life of crime.
- Does “refining” sensibilities hurt? I imagine something like electrotherapy or perhaps subliminal messages imprinted somehow on the page that are activated when they come into contact with air. Of course they would probably be obscene lies such as “Heathcliffe totally pwns Mr. Darcy”. Shudder.
Maybe the best thing about ‘great literature’ however you choose to define it is that it makes you realise how little you actually know about the world in general and perhaps make you want to find out more. Those force-fed weighty tomes may avoid roughage problems but lack imagination, while those who only read “trash” may have depth in that genre but not breadth overall. At the end of the day, as long as you are reading something that you enjoy, does it really matter?