What makes a good book?

After finishing The Picture of Dorian Gray, one of the questions I am thinking about is the question of what makes a good book, which relates to some ideas we’ve been exploring in “Victorian Literature” as we read Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barret Browning.  In this narrative poem, the narrator is an avid reader and talks about how books and poetry have influenced her life and her own work.  She says she read books “Without considering whether they were fit / To do me good,” believing that it is when “We gloriously forget ourselves and plunge / Soul-forward, headlong, into a book’s profound, / Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth” that we get the good from a book (Browning 701-2, 706-8).  In these lines, it seems as though her ideas align with the notion that it is the reader’s disposition and commitment to literature that contributes to what they get out of reading, not necessarily the content of the book itself.  The way the reader approaches the book has an impact on their reading experience and the lessons they take away from it.  With these ideas in mind, we can consider Dorian’s approach to the poisonous book he receives from Lord Henry.  He approaches it with a mindset already leaning towards corruption.  Dorian “never sought to free himself” from the influence of the book, believing that it contained “the story of his own life, written before he had lived it” (Wilde 102).  The sins he sees lived out in the book are sins he chooses to enact.  He actively chooses his way of life, and though he blames the book for his actions, he actively chooses to take what he does from the book and connect it so closely to his life.  If we question the power of the book as a corrupting force in Dorian’s life, we may also consider the power of Lord Henry over Dorian, and question whether it was Lord Henry’s influence that changed Dorian, or whether Dorian, perhaps inspired by Lord Henry, chose to follow a path of corruption farther than Lord Henry had ever followed it.

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