“For what is literature…?” That is how the quote starts. The question rolls around in my head like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole. Poor Alice. That girl has to fall down that rabbit hole every single time someone tells that story. If only the tale were less loved, Alice could be less bonked, bruised, and confused. But Alice is, of course, a classic—which begs the question, “What is a classic?”
I can recite the “classic” definition (pun intended) that it is literature that has some universal theme and has stood the test of time. Personally, though, I find that definition severely uninspiring, and whatever else classic literature should be, it should be inspiring. It should inspire us to think “bigger,” to see the world from a broader perspective. It should inspire us to take courage, to find strength. It should inspire us to feel deeply, to war through pain.
That it inspires us does not mean it makes us happy. Most classic literature is not happy. Even in Charlotte’s Web, Charlotte dies; and in the fairy tales, happily ever after only comes after grievous plights and suffering. And there is no happily ever after at all in one of the most classic love stories, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. There is only a love that is worth fighting for against all opposition, only the message that, in the midst of hatred and prejudice, love can still be found—and though it may not ultimately overcome all it wars against in their story, its very existence declares that love has the power to rise fiercely even when nothing nourishes it and it is violently defied. That is inspiring.
Then there is one of the most ancient classics, Homer’s The Odyssey. How many perils can one man face in his thwarted attempt simply to return home? He is held hostage, attacked by angry men, tossed on the seas by storms, threatened by a one-eyed giant, cursed by one god and opposed by another, seduced, and faced with loss and grief—only to at long last make it home and find that his house has been overtaken by men trying to woo his wife. Ye gods! And we like this story because…? We like it because it argues that we can face anything—and everything—and not be defeated. It stirs the will to persist, to endure, to hope against hope and not lose faith. That is inspiring.
What about, say, a dark classic such as Golding’s Lord of the Flies? This is the story of human nature at its basest. The strong prey upon the weak. The need to be strong preys upon the heart, twisting it into something vile. Innocence is lost. That is not inspiring, is it? I dare to say yes, it is. It provokes thought, pushes us to look at ourselves and recognize that we in our humanity—though able to face anything and everything and not be defeated—are not invincible. It urges us to come face to face with our own weaknesses, to reevaluate in fact what weakness is, to dare to be strong enough to admit our vulnerability and let humility triumph over pride. That is inspiring.
On a very different spectrum, one of the most treasured children’s classics is Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Ah. There is a story. A child who is lonely and hurting discovers a walled-up garden, hated by its owner because it is a reminder of all he has lost. The child risks the owner’s wrath by bringing the garden back to life, nurturing beauty in place of sorrow. And beauty heals hearts. That is inspiring.
In all of these stories, if we look, we see ourselves, come to understand ourselves. Italo Calvino says in his book Why Read the Classics, “‘Your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.” It is not necessarily that a classic is a favorite story. It may, like Alice’s rabbit hole, leave us bonked, bruised, and confused. But it does for us what Alice’s Wonderland did for her: stretches us, shows us our smallness, challenges our perspective, threatens us, intrigues us, changes us. “For what is literature,” the quote by the unknown author asks, “and what is its purpose if not to open our eyes to truth and help us find our own souls?”
That is inspiring.
Christa is the Head of the Young People's Department. She came to the library with a background in education, having spent ten years as a teacher, and believes firmly in the Young People's Department vision, "Libraries=education--empowering minds through creative investigation."