Recently, it seems that I find encouragement in readings for class, since I don't have much time to read anything else. One class discussion centered on the last part of Plato's "Phaedrus," which seemed daunting to read at first, but the latter part concerning writing versus speech intrigued me.
Good literature is, as Socrates claims, 'reminders for men who know.' Good literature both informs us of new ideas and also serves as a reminder of what we already know. It prompts us to think about characters and ourselves in light of what the author has written.
Defining great literature can be difficult because everyone has a different opinion of what speaks to them and what 'impactful and great' means. I do think that stories that are well-structured and well-written are worth our attention, and if an author has written them with individual readers and the community of readership in mind, such books hold weight and importance. Great literature should help us remember things we have may have forgotten, and such books ought to point to some element of the truth of human experience. There is some aspect within the pages and sentences of quality literature that will stand the test of time and effectively speak to a wide range of readers.
Bad literature often holds a poor picture of the world; even if it is fictional, we as readers expect books to portray some semblance of truth. We trust the author to adequately present us with a gripping, exciting story that informs us. Whether that's a story detailing a chaotic world, one full of fantasy and mystery, or something we'd encounter in our day-to-day life, we expect it to be true in some way. We expect it to find a connection to some part of the story.
We can read great literature that we end up disliking. Perhaps Dickens is too wordy for some and Fitzgerald too fixated on analogy for others. Our opinions sometimes cloud the waters of what a good book really is, but we can dislike a writer's style and still uphold the truth and value of their work.
Great literature includes classics, but works that fall into the category of good literature don't necessarily have to be classic novels. Perhaps there are tiers where Shakespeare, Homer, Virgil and Dante are the top and Milton, Adichie, Fitzgerald, Vonnegut, Dickens etc. are in the middle, and the lower tier of great literature exists in bookshops filled with unrecognized titles from unknown authors ' but their works are still good literature, and readers benefit just as much from reading their works as reading "The Iliad" or "Hamlet."
These types of works hold a strong parallel to human experience, and are consistent with what we know to be true. At times it pushes the bounds of accepted writing, but great literature establishes a strong, personal foundation for the reader.
I spoke with numerous individuals about their thoughts on the definition of great literature, and everyone I talked with mentioned that good books are ones that stuck with them and impacted them at some level:
Senior Michelle Tolliver said, 'Great literature is made by a pure voice. It's one that is not necessarily fresh and new but, genuine.'
Junior Rachel Hess said, 'Great literature is a story that leaves me thinking after I'm done reading.'
Senior Sara Robertson considers great literature 'a book that I can read (and want to read) multiple times throughout my life, and it still means something to me.'
Good writing, and good literature, says different things, at different times, for different people. It connects with society as a whole, often making a statement about our humanity and displaying truth. After encountering great literature, the hope and expectation is that you don't remain the same reader you were at the beginning.