There are so many ways to approach this question.
As an undergrad, I received a Great Books and English literature education I loved. I still find many so-called great works to be a bolstering moral influence. The characters are more often concerned with the question of how one should live, and so I can take comfort in Anne Shirley‘s quest to be a good girl, or Fanny Price‘s uncool, surprisingly steely morality. What’s more, as I continue my adventures in reading, I meet new compatriots in unexpected places, on the French Canadian frontier, for instance. Catholic New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argued a year back,
But at the same time, there are ways in which Christianity really is a time machine: As a Catholic, as a Christian, you can step into those worlds, find your footing, and realize that you are not somewhere altogether alien; that the past is another country but also somehow yours; you can in some sense think with the letter-writers of the New Testament and the Church Father scribbling in late antiquity and the medieval monk in the north of England and the Florentine poet and the philosopher-nun dealing with hapless popes and the mystic in Spain and the philosopher-martyr in Henry VIII’s court and thence back around to the saints and novelists and polemicists of the modern world.
I feel, sometimes, though, like I’m caught between the librarian camp and the bookish mama camp. My librarian training would say that all books are valuable and that variety is most important, never looking down on a Spiderman novelization; the bookish mamas would say only quality will pass muster.
Contemporary books, after all, and reading simply for pleasure’s sake, have brought so much into my life. John Ames has had a lot to teach me and the rest of us, even if the book in which he finds a home is a (comparatively) new one. Even low quality books may offer their own rewards: escapism for the wretchedly morning sick new mother; enthusiasm for reading in a young reader choosing his own books for the first time.
They give me a fictional framework upon which to contextualize knowledge I gain later from loftier sources — for instance, I’m reading the so-so Crazy Rich Asians at the moment, maybe the first book I’ve ever read that takes place in Singapore, and it will form the conceptual framework I use next time I hear a NPR piece on Singapore. It’s like TV. There isn’t really anything you can watch that is particularly virtuous and educational, compared to, say a book or a lecture. But there’s something about the vividness of the nature documentary, or the setting of 1920s Yorkshire in Downton Abbey, entertainment you’ve chosen for yourself, that cements those facts more strongly in your head better than the driest, most informative book. I think the same goes for the fun fluff your kids choose to read. It’s not a meal in itself, but it’s certainly a start.
As a librarian, I was a staunch supporter of letting a kid add a Star Wars novella or two to his stack of books, and I still wince when a well-meaning parent outlaws any fluff from their little one’s reading. My varied, omnivorous reading has made me smarter, and wiser, and more compassionate, stretching me in all kinds of ways.
What’s more, divorced from community and faith and family, even great capital-Literature can be no stand-alone salvation. The summer I turned 25, my memories of my Great Books education became irrevocably tarnished, when a classmate in some of my early courses was charged with murder. The voices of goodness, truth and beauty that had spoken to me in that sunlit classroom haunted by errant wasps had fallen upon deaf ears, or perhaps been drowned out by subsequent influences or deep illness. The books I’d read and argued for gathered at that round table hadn’t necessarily meant the same to all of us.
Maybe good books matter, but good books aren’t the only ones that matter, and books aren’t all that matter. The simple act of reading cannot make us happier, or better, or holier, but filtered through experience and reflection, through the guide of a tradition and a community, reading can assemble behind us a rank of fictional counterparts, fighting down through the ages the same battles we now face.