With the link to the Bible, the story "…resonates with the richness of distant antecedents" and it no longer is "locked in the middle of the twentieth century"; hence, it never grows old, Foster concludes (56).
C.S. Lewis on the Importance of Reading Good Literature
C.S. Lewis, noted novelist, literary critic, lay theologian and essayist, advocates reading literature in his book an Experiment in Criticism. He is disappointed in fact when individuals only read important novels once. Reading a novel the second time for many on his list of incomplete readers is "…like a burnt-out match, an old railway ticket, or yesterday's paper" (Lewis, 2012, p. 2). Those bright alert people who read great works will read the same book "…ten, twenty or thirty times" during their lifetime and discover more with each reading, Lewis writes. The person who is a "devotee of culture" is worth "much more than the status seeker," Lewis continues on page 8.
That person, to Lewis, is reading "to improve himself, to develop his potentialities, to become a more complete man" (8). Younger people ("unhappy youth) apply what they read and learn from literature to an understanding of the "scruples, the rigorism… the distrust of pleasure" that his ancestors and "forebears" applied to the spiritual life. Learning about the "intolerance and self-righteousness" of people that went before -- through reading literature -- is and should be part of the maturation process, Lewis explains (10).
The "true reader" reads each work of literature seriously, not "solemnly or gravely," but rather "whole-heartedly" and that reader prepares himself (or herself) in a way that makes the reader very receptive to what has been written by great writers (Lewis, 11).
Reading Literature is a way of Learning History
Much fictional literature is historical in nature because writers use real-world themes and incidents, and therefore readers learn about events in the past that have relevance today. Mark Twain's iconic book the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, (AHF) is a case in point. In the novel, which takes place in the South in the middle 1800s and was published in 1885, uses the ugly word "nigger" 214 times. Of course that word was commonplace in Twain's lifetime, and the book is historically accurate on many levels. Adroit middle school and high school teachers have used the Twain novel to open students' eyes to the racial hatred and political realities of a divided nation after the Civil War. There is an open door to American history in this novel.
That said, in the eyes of some important literary figures -- like William Styron, Robert Penn Warren, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and W.E.B. Du Bois -- Huck Finn was a very important piece of the American literary portfolio. In fact, iconic poet T.S. Eliot wrote that Huck Finn was a character in the "company of" enormously important fictional characters like "…Ulysses, Faust, Don Quixote, Hamlet and other great discoveries that man has made about himself," Robert Fikes writes in the Western Journal of Black Studies (Fikes, 2011, p. 241).
Still, in the 1950s in America, Blacks in key places began agitating against AHF, due to the many references to the "N-word" and also to the portrayal of Jim, the runaway slave, as an "accommodating… minstrel-like" character. As a result of these protestations against language in the book, many schools and libraries took the book off the shelves. Moreover, in 2011, a new edition of AHF was publishes without the "N-word" (instead, the publisher used "slave"). The reader of literature should know not just about the value of the novel in its original form, but the alert reader should also understand the history of why the book was controversial, and still is.
In conclusion, everyone, not just students, should read literature and when there are extraordinarily profound and vibrant phrases within the literature those phrases and ideas should be examined for origins. Moreover, as C.S. Lewis stressed, great literature should be read over and over again, and literature should be read in order for the reader to gain a grasp of what has gone on before -- the history of the world and the history of the United States.
Draughon, Earl Wells. A Book Worth Reading. Bloomington, in: iUniverse, 2003.
Files, Robert. "The Black Love-Hate Affair with the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Western Journal of Black Studies, 35.4 (2011): 240-245.
Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading…