Tuesday, February 10, 2009

“tis the good reader that makes the good book”

In the January 29th, 2009 edition of Wabash College's Bachelor, columnist Royce Gregerson takes a critical look at the college's literary corpus and raises the question, "where did all the great books go?" The point behind his rant is that "it's time to skip the academic jargon and high-strung language without semblance of point, message, or direction." While this statement is agreeable, it is when Gregerson supports his argument with statements such as "who even knows who Susan Gubar, Derek Walcott, Nabokov, Szymborska, and Murakami are? Who could possibly say that these represent some of the greatest books ever written?" Derek Walcott won the Nobel Prize for literature. Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita is #4 on the list of the Modern Library's 100 best novels of the 20th century. The authors Gregerson criticizes seem to be praised in the literary world. While Gregerson mentions other great authors (Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Thoreau), it seems that Gregerson considers a great book to be written by a long deceased white male. This is not consistent with the liberal arts, and certainly not what makes a great book. Personally, the books I have found to be great were not written by deceased authors. My favorite book, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, presents an author exactly the opposite of Gregerson's standard. And it would be hard for Gregerson to deny The Color Purple as a "great" novel; it received the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award.

The question really is not where did the great books go, but what makes a great book? In the student's perspective, the great books seem to be a predetermined list that repeatedly appears on course syllabi. However, it is important to note that there was a time when no one had read these books, and the first readers that determined the success of the novel. It is the reader that has the ability to bring life to the page; the reader decides what the author said and how well it was said. As Ralph Waldo Emerson says in his essay "Success", "tis the good reader that makes the good book."

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