Today was a fun day for me. I took 3 of my book club students to Lawrence (home of KU Jayhawks) to browse two 2nd hand bookstores. We all took books in to trade and came out with some new bargains. My best find was a copy of Helene Hanff’s The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (the same author wrote the more well-known 84 Charing Cross Road, but I much prefer this book as she actually visits London and regales us with her traveling adventures). I also found a few other treasures, as did my students. We spent a total of 6 hours together and I think they truly could have stayed longer if I didn’t have to get back to lesson plans.
This book club class is a very informal, one-credit hour class that involves the reading and discussion of literature. There are no tests or papers in the class (you would think that it would be better attended than just 6 students), but every single one of these students LOVES to read. We began the school year developing a list of books to read first semester: some were tried and true classics (Of Mice and Men and Great Expectations) and others were more contemporary (Screwtape Letters and Phantom of the Opera). This has led to several discussions of what constitutes literary merit – and what makes a novel worth close academic study vs an enjoyable read. We have devised – albeit very unscientifically – a formula for literary merit which we continue to hone each class period. So far, here is a list of possible criteria:
- timeless – as in, it is pertinent in the year it was written as well as years (centuries) afterwards
- timeless – as in, it can be read and enjoyed by a variety of age groups (teens through 80s)
- begs to be re-read – as in, each time the story is re-read the reader gains a deeper appreciation or learns more about human nature or gains a different perspective than the first time (I would not put the Twilight series in this category as I think these books are re-read because the characters are like close friends that one may wish to revisit, but not necessarily present a new academic focus)
- unique – as in, the author has experimented with a new genre or writing technique that is then adopted by others (for example, Poe’s horror or Capote’s True Crime)
- layers of meaning – as in, there is so much symbolism and/or themes and/or textures in the novel that it simply cannot be absorbed all at one time
- writing style – as in, the language is so rich in diction and/or syntax that the reader is drawn into the story as much through the words as through the plot, characters or setting
So far, that is what our small group has discussed. I would love to hear your views on what you think constitutes “literary merit”. I am not looking for the definitive meaning of the term – but rather a brainstorm of what could it entail in the hopes that this might spark some great class discussions as well as individual critical thinking.