#SaystheEditor: Great Works of Literature



Color me shocked to read a blog post the other day that quoted a New York Times article written by an Eagle Scout. The guy was calling the Boy Scout Handbook a Work of Great Literature.

By its definition, literature is fiction. The BSA Handbook is, by its definition, not.

From Webster’s online:


written works (such as poems, plays, and novels) that are considered to be very good and to have lasting importance

: books, articles, etc., about a particular subject

: printed materials (such as booklets, leaflets, and brochures) that provide information about something

Before you get in my face that the second and third points aren’t fiction, let me point something out: it’s only the fiction entry that gets noted as consider to be very good and to have lasting importance. That’s key here.

Other the Bible, which is in a class of its own, think of Works of Great Literature. What comes to mind? Moby Dick? The Scarlet Letter? Pride and Prejudice? Don Quixote? Beloved?

And authors you recognize: Flaubert, Garcia Marquez, Borges, Faulkner, Hemingway, Joyce, Shakespeare.

These ALL have two things in common: they are fiction. And they are old. I think Toni Morrison is the newest on the list I’m looking at.

Okay, a second look shows some Harlan Ellison and Chinua Achebe. On some radars, that’s old. (On some radars, I’m old. On some, I’m not.)

But you get my point, right? FICTION. Not real. And certainly not a handbook designed to teach you outdoor skills and the twelve points of the Scout Law.

As a Boy Scout leader (Trained Scoutmaster, Venturing Advisor, Wood Badge, and member of the Order of the Arrow) and as a parent of a Boy Scout, yes, I’ve read the Boy Scout handbook. It’s fascinating reading, and the centennial edition is beautifully put together. But it’s not a novel. It’s not a Work of Literature. (to be fair, it’s the 1940 edition that is being raved about, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen, although I’ve seen some old ones, including an original. But it’s still not fiction!)

And you know what? The New York Times shoulda known that. The author of the piece should have known that. He’s a Distinguished Eagle Scout and has won all sorts of awards.

Know something else? He defined what to him a Work of Great Literature is. So he had to share his definition with the world in order to make this argument. It’s one man’s argument. It’s not a generally agreed-upon one.

It saddens me. There’s simply no way I, who works in publishing, can agree with this classification. The Boy Scout Handbook is brilliant for what it is. A manual. A guide to survival, to skills that some think are dying out (they clearly don’t watch The Walking Dead). It’s a way of life, a set of values, a challenge to your knowledge.

But it’s NOT literature.


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