Assumptions in the literary world that have been considered normative for generations are under attack. Helen Vendler, the nation's foremost poetry critic, even finds the need to defend Shakespeare's sonnets. Good literature from prior centuries is being tossed over in favor of modern writing in some surprising quarters. Many of us find this trend alarming, and for good reason.

At one time it was thought that literature should have an ennobling and refining effect on the soul. We understood that people are full of passionate energy, which can be directed in either destructive or constructive avenues. We recognized that classical art, music, and literature have power. The arts were valued for their ability to uplift the soul, to impart a sense of truth, and to teach us that life has purpose and is worth living.

My own love affair with literature began with a matchmaker named Eleanor Leonard, the children's librarian in my home town. One day I walked into the library with a Nancy Drew mystery. Mrs. Leonard greeted me.

"What's that book you have under your arm?"

"It's a Nancy Drew mystery."

"Why, I'm surprised at you, Sarah. There are so many better books you could read."

"But I like Nancy Drew. All my friends read her."

Mrs. Leonard paused, looking at me intently. "The trouble with Nancy Drew is that it isn't literature; it doesn't have the depth or richness of a classic. Come here, let me show you."

Mrs. Leonard drew me over to the fiction shelves for my age group and began to read passages from her favorites. Some were from masters such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling and Johanna Spyri. Other authors, such as C. S. Lewis, Madeline L'Engle and Rumer Godden, were more recent, including several Caldecott or Newbery Award ...

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