In grade 2, I began reading at an average of about 200 books a year. I read everything — Roald Dahl, Laura Ingalls, the Boxcar children, Shel Silverstein, Eyewitness encyclopedias, and pretty much everything in between. Reading was my escape, my favourite way of learning, and my best source of comfort. Now, in my third year of undergrad, majoring in English, little has changed. I no longer read 200 books a year — that number began dropping steadily after grade 7 — but I still enjoy a very diverse range of literature, from Malcolm Gladwell, to Dante, to A.A. Milne.
As much as I’ve been a voracious reader all my life, I have also had to put up with a fairly constant stream of criticism about my reading choices since grade 2. These would stem mainly from my parents, but also indirectly from peers, teachers, and other adults in my life. I was criticized for my attachments to children’s literature, young adult fiction, and flashy new releases; classics were shoved relentlessly into my hands, most often accompanied by an opinion boldly masquerading as fact.
“The Kite Runner is not good literature.”
“Harry Potter is not good literature.”
“Dan Brown is not good literature.”
The core problem with these types of statements is that they assume that there is such thing as one definition of “good literature” and that it’s the same for everyone. How can there ever be a simplistic or narrow definition for something as open and subjective as “good”? After all, there is not just one reason for why we read. Depending on our mood, our stage in life, or our personal tastes, we may read to learn, to escape, to find comfort, or enjoyment, or adventure. Shouldn’t it follow that there would be vastly different books to suit all of these needs, for all types of people? Why should some be considered better than others, and why should any one person have the right to define the concept of “good” for anyone else?
I have never been able to accept why some of my favourite books were deemed worthy enough to be considered in this ridiculously exclusive category while other equally cherished ones were not. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (which I’ve been told is indeed “good literature”) was as enjoyable to read as Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone (which is classified in the notoriously scorned section of YA). I grew deeply attached to the characters of both stories, and couldn’t put either book down. For this reason, I have always given every book a fair chance, and read everything that’s interested me, regardless of its age, fame, reputation, or lack thereof. Each story that I’ve completed has made me feel something, and all of them left me with something. That is all the criteria I need.
This is not to say that there is no such thing as good literature; there are certainly some loosely universal characteristics of a good story that more people typically respond to. Classics and bestsellers achieve their status because of meaningful plots, memorable characters, beautiful prose, and all those generic elements that I pay thousands every year to study. Within those vague elements, however, are a myriad of possibilities that fall into every genre and every reading level.
I have had far too many people scoff derisively when I show them the book in my hand, and tell me that it’s not “good literature,” or even that it’s not “real literature.” As someone who has never discriminated against any book, I have never been able to understand this mindset; I think we all need to step off our high horses and recognize that a good book does not necessarily have to be one that was published at least 30 years ago (as my father believes), or one that all the top academics recommend. Many of them are, but in disregarding those that aren’t, a lot of valuable experiences can be lost.