Reading Together Blog

Examining Good Literature

What qualities contribute to a book’s lasting value? Can we predict what will become a classic?

On March 9, Dr. Nicolas S. Witschi of Western Michigan University’s Department of English was our guest speaker for “The Book as a Literary Classic.”  Describing Snow Falling on Cedars as a “complex and rich book for evaluation and interpretation,” he said it contains many qualities consistent with good literature. Here are some highlights:

  1. Sophisticated techniques. The framing narrative is a murder trial. As the trial unfolds, we learn other stories as well, so not only do we see the progression of the trial but we know the events that led up to it. Guterson adds depth and richness with a plethora of “structured binaries” — the push and pull of paired opposites such as just/unjust, true/untrue, war/peace; past/present; young/old; power/powerlessness; chaos/control.
  2. Evocative detail. Guterson’s texture of language and words “develops a tapestry.” In one example, the author describes a natural setting that also mirrors a character’s state of mind.
  3. Literature that informs the novel. Snow Falling on Cedars is “keenly aware of its literary forebears,” Dr. Witschi said, offering a short list of influential titles, among them: Moby Dick, To Kill a Mockingbird, Sense and Sensibility, and Winesburg, Ohio;
  4. Multiple themes. Snow Falling on Cedars is a romance, a murder mystery, and a story of endurance amidst hardship and racial prejudice. It also is the story of an artist coming into his own. At the end of the book, we get the sense that Ishmael has changed, has found himself as a writer, gaining a sense of where his place should be. And as Ishmael begins to write, we are left to ponder what will become of him as a writer?


Book as a Literary Classic