What Is Good Literature?

Cosette in Les Miserables from Wikimedia Commons

On a school administrators’ email group, Darrell Hershberger posed this question:

What makes literature worthwhile? We’re working on coming to an answer to this question that will inform our library book review policy as well as our literature selections for high school. Admittedly, not a quick and easy question. But even a one-sentence reply might be helpful!

Below are the responses the question received. Thanks to the authors for sharing their reflections!

The number one thing is the universality of themes over time and place.  The second thing is the effective use of language.  The third thing is the instruction that comes from the perspective and experience of others—we see what happens when men choose to follow God, when they do not, when they know God, and when they do not.

– Carol Burkholder

The extent to which it thoughtfully, exquisitely, and truthfully explores the nature of the human condition.

– Joshua Good

A good book:

  • Causes the reader to admire characters who are good and noble—Jean Valjean in Les Miserables
  • Disillusions the reader to the attractiveness of sin—Death of a Salesman, Lord of the Flies
  • Stirs one’s faith—biographies of heroes of faith—autobiography of George Muller, Bruchko, John Coblentz’s biography of his father, or Vera’s Journey
  • Increases one’s empathy, the ability to feel deeply along with other people—To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Gives us experiences different from our own, exposing prejudices and exercising the imagination—The Long Road Home, The Spirit Catches You
  • Models good writing

A bad book

  • Entices the reader to vicariously experience sinful ideas or actions and be attracted to false or immoral characters and behaviors
  • Pretends that evil doesn’t exist.  This kind of “marshmallow literature” may be as bad as the ones who portray evil inappropriately; marshmallow books are artificially sweetened and don’t portray the world realistically, creating false expectations for life.

– Kendall Myers

My one-word answer to “What makes literature worthwhile?” is wisdom.

A more expanded answer is…

Teaching literature involves helping students to engage a literary work and respond to it in a way that influences how they live their lives from that day forward. Good literature throbs with the pulse of the human heart in its interaction with God’s world.  The person who truly reads literature grows a little with each piece he reads.  He may be enlightened, inspired, encouraged, or warned. He may gain knowledge, insight, or motivation.  Literature study uses the skills of reading for the purpose of gaining insight.

Regarding library building, see this outline with some thoughts on building and using a school library. Of particular interest is the challenge of making the library collection an integral part of the school’s work. It’s easy for students (and perhaps even teachers/administrators) to develop the attitude that school studies/learning have little if anything to do with the reading of “real books” (as one might find in a library).

-Jonas Sauder

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