In his 1947 book Miracles, C.S. Lewis tells a story about two men who both think that a certain dog is dangerous. The first man holds this opinion because he has often seen it muzzled and has noticed that the mailman avoids that house. The second man fears the dog because it has a black coat, and he was once bitten by a black dog in childhood.
The best literature teachers rely on classic books, but how can you tell a classic from a non-classic? One popular answer to this question is that you have to wait because it takes time to identify one. You must wait and see which books manage to transcend the concerns of their own time and place and speak to the hearts of people from other times and places; which books, in other words, address universal themes in universally compelling ways.
Anne Ridler's “Christmas and the Common Birth" is one of the most thought provoking poems I’ve ever read at Christmas time, and worth quoting in full:
The Center For Lit crew recently welcomed YA author Gary Schmidt to an episode of our BiblioFiles podcast. Mr. Schmidt is the author of several excellent stories for young readers, including award-winners Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, The Wednesday Wars, and Okay for Now.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Mr. Schmidt offered some compelling thoughts on reading and literature, including a defense of the arts that kept me thinking for days after we recorded the conversation:
At a crucial moment in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, protagonist Brutus bemoans the “spirit of the age,” a disposition toward tyranny that allows Caesar to assume the power of a king over Rome’s erstwhile republic. Brutus and his friends conspire to defeat this insidious evil by murdering Caesar and restoring popular government to Rome.
Here at Center for Lit, we regularly ask students in our online Lit classes the question, “Who is the protagonist of this story?” Although the answer is often obvious, a discussion of this question almost always helps students relate to the author’s themes more profoundly.
A brief story, for your consideration:
A long time ago, in a far-off land, a king sits on an uneasy throne. He has a history of hardheaded willfulness. Representatives of the gods of the land have often warned him of the duties of piety, but he prefers to manipulate the gods for his own ends. Eventually, in an attempt to gain a monopoly on divine revelation, he makes it illegal for anyone but himself to use the magic arts.
Similes and metaphors are our bread and butter at Center For Lit. After all, figurative language gives literature its beauty and its power. It’s one of the things that separates Homer’s Odyssey from an encyclopedia article. Given the choice between a police report and a detective story, I would always rather read the latter, mostly because of the beauty of language that shows rather than tells, that deals in pictures rather than literal explanations.
You get what you deserve. That’s the way it is supposed to work, and that’s the way I like it. That’s what I discovered about myself this last summer while reading Crime and Punishment. I also found out that for a spine-tingling, hair-raising psychological murder mystery, you can’t do better than Dostoyevsky.