Google slides has a cool function that I like to use in class. It allows the audience to pose written questions at any time. It is great for those comments that are tangential to the general discussion, but nevertheless deserve attention. Sometimes I even ask students to submit an oral question in this way so we can avoid derailing the discussion.
During the class, we were talking about literature and its place in society. My argument was that telling stories is important and that, in many ways, it is key to allowing us to convert something that has happened into experience. By experience I mean into that wealth of life from which we draw to create things like identity, goals, and our own conceptions of important notions like beauty and love. In other words, telling stories allows us to be who we are. It provides us the language to incorporate what happens into our lives and to turn those things into an experience that is useful.
During this conversation, we talked about the literary canon and what makes a text “good”. It was at this point that a student posed an online question. My argument was that we can measure a work’s value by looking at the before and after influence it had on society. What was the world like before its existence and how did things change in its wake? I used Shakespeare and Cervantes as examples. The first added close to 2,000 words to the English language and the second wrote the first novel. In other words, both authors changed the world and -even if we don’t find their writing attractive- it is possible to argue that they are important and therefore worth reading.
The question was phrased in a personal way. The person wanted to know what I look for to consider a book to be “good”. The answer to this question is not easy. In fact, it is contradictory. There are times that I’m attracted to a book that is challenging and requires work. There are other moments where a book like this is the last thing that I want and I seek a text that carries me along like a child. Sometimes I prefer fiction, or maybe poetry, or essay, or nonfiction. There are days when I want a text that is neatly divided into short sections so it is easily left and returned to. On other days, I want to delve into something that feels endless.
Perhaps the best way to describe what I like is to talk about the author. Our society has professionalized writing. If someone wants to become a writer, they can go to school to learn, google questions about technique, and join support groups. A sizable number of people who approach it in this professional way will earn a living with their words. They will publish and be read. Many of them will get jobs and some will earn prizes.
It seems to me that these writers are everywhere and they are not the ones that attract me. Their style, language, and subjects are echoes of one another. Instead, I am interested in the writer who chose not to write. I want the writers who decided to put down the pen and run out the door. These people chose not to read about how to write, they sought life. I want someone who exchanged comfort for experience. They should have scars and, thanks to those scrapes, be able to value and prioritize. They should have travelled and met many people. They need to have eaten at many tables. They need to have known fear and to have made mistakes. They need to have loved, burnt, been burnt, and found it within themselves to be vulnerable again many times over. Once they have embraced life with this calculated abandon, they will have stories to tell. Those stories can be conveyed in many forms. Be it poetry, fiction, nonfiction, or essay, those are the texts that I want to read; those are the books that I think are good. It is impossible to say what one of their texts will look like, but when you read it, you will know.
A last thought: Sadly, Don Rickles died. The man could say what nobody else could. He also appears to have lived life.