~ To me, great literature uses words for their sound and beauty rather than for their ease of understanding. This teaches vocabulary, and in a roundabout way teaches root words or use of Latin in our language, which in turn makes language, and foreign languages, as a whole more interesting and accessible to the mind. Every word needs not be defined when reading to a child. If they ask then you can explain the word, but most children will learn by context much as they do spoken language, simply by hearing the word used often over time.
~ To me, great literature poses real life choices that are difficult to make. Great literature will show real life consequences, good or bad, for the decisions made. Great literature also portrays real life values of forgiveness, justice, mercy, love, faith, hope, integrity, friendship, joy, humor, etc.
~To me, great literature will take you out of your small sphere of experience without taking you out of real life. It should be an adventure but an adventure that is possible for the reader as well.
Now, lest any of you should frown on my all too restrictive requirements, let me state that great literature is not the only kind or literature I feel is worth reading. I believe that myths and legends are important for teaching about ancient culture, ancient religion, and for opening the imagination. Fantasy,mystery, romance, and thrillers are fun for escaping from reality, though I firmly believe they should be used in moderation. Plays are important reading for building up the visualization abilities of a reader. Poetry should be read for literary rhythm and memorization.
I love any and all forms of the written word, but I worry about the lack of great literature being used in these modern times. Long ago the Odyssey was read as a great adventure story. Now it causes most people's brains to hurt (including mine) to try and read it because our brains are not used to archaic words and wording. Shakespeare is rarely enjoyed to it's fullest because people are not practiced in the art of nuance and wordplay. And many consider great literature to be boring when no one is kissing, being blown up, or falling into a magical realm because we have lost our taste for subtlety. Others dislike any story with real life situations because they are too sad, which can only make me wonder if the distaste for reality has any correlation to the increase in depression we find in our society these days. We often look for semblance between the books we most love and our real life. Is it any wonder that people are dissatisfied to find that there husband isn't a prince, that no vampire will whisk them away from dirty diapers and kitchen, that no wizard will come and save you from your wretched family life, and that your new job is not going to lead you to overthrow a major government conspiracy?
This is why I feel it necessary to raise my children with a love of great literature. But how? With movies, computers, comic books, and Harry Potter to compete with, how do I dare hope to get my children to love great literature? And how can I accomplish it with my lack of energy, my kids being in public school and "done with learning" by the time they get home, and without feeling like I am forcing them or fighting them (heaven's knows I need my fighting energy for other things), and all while still having time to eat ice cream and watch my old movies?
Thus begins my great experiment. Stay tuned for part deux.