Imagine you’ve read a book that changed your life. You can’t stop talking about it, you bring it up in conversation, and you recommend it to all your friends. “Why is it good?” they might ask. “It’s a classic,” you respond; or, “It’s a great book, a book worth admiring and saving for years to come.” But the whole idea of a “great book,” or a “classic,” is a little hard to define. After all, who’s to say that one person’s favorite will translate to the next person over? People are so different, and the way we experience things so varied, that it’s hard to recommend books, from one person to another.
But we’re in the business of reviewing books here at ItB, and part of that is thinking through what makes a book transcend time, experience, and cultures. Most “classics” are called that because many people throughout time have recognized that they have something valuable to say. They preserved these books the best way they knew how: by teaching them to their children, and their children’s children. This is how we save books: by teaching.
So let’s pretend we’re running a school. Maybe you have kids, or maybe you teach, or maybe you just want to start building a collection of books that will stick with you throughout your life: great books, that are worth saving. Where do we start? What do we look for? That’s what we’re going to be studying over the next four weeks: what are the qualities of great books? Here’s our roadmap:
- Great books are relevant
- Great books are inexhaustible
- Great books are superior
- Great books are indelible
Great books are relevant
It doesn’t take much reading to see that a book is not only a sequence of events, or a piece of entertainment. Instead, books have something to say: they influence our thoughts and emotions, open our horizons up to new worlds, and teach us through experiences that we’ve never had. Stories are forever relevant to humanity because they tell the story of humanity.
So a great book will resonate with its readers, because the story it is telling applies to many different people, of many different cultures and times. Mortimer Adler writes, “[Great books] should be works that are as much of concern to us today as at the time they were written, even if that was centuries ago. They are thus essentially timeless — always contemporary, and not confined to interests that change from time to time or from place to place.” 1 A great story will not grow old. It will have value to your grandchildren as well as yourself.
When the passing fad goes away (amish romance, zombies, pick your poison, there’s a million fads out there), how well will most of those stories age? Most of them will creak and groan in old age. They’re popular because they follow the fads, not because the story itself is valuable. Sure, there may be a few Amish romances out there that are hidden gems, but as a whole the genre is surfing a fad. And this is not the only fad out there: dystopian YA novels, dragon-riding questers, the list goes on and on. Take away the glow of popularity, and many of these stories turn into pale imitations of better books.
In a way, even the fiction stories you read are true. They tell of something that happened, or at least something that could happen. Even the most remote, alien story is still grounded in the emotions and ideas of humanity, because a human wrote the story. We can’t escape our humanity, which means that all our stories will have some echo of humanity in them. A wise author will use this to his advantage, telling a story for more than just entertainment. A good story teaches through the telling of an experience that we can all, in some way, relate to. There is a takeaway, something to hold in your heart after you’ve finished it.
Now, this doesn’t mean loads of cheap platitudes or moralizing. That usually happens when the message behind the story becomes more important than the story itself. You’ve come across books like these before. Christian fantasy novels where the main character has a conversion experience, anyone? I’ve read them — heck, I’ve written them! Instead of than subverting the story to stick a worldview into the book, a great story will meld worldview and story into one graceful piece.
It’s impossible to remove all tinges of a worldview from a story, and we shouldn’t want that. In fact, even stories we disagree with can teach us valuable truths. A great book is not only filled with morals and allegories, but with deep truths that underpin the foundations of the story. Stories echo the worldview of those who write them. Good books will powerfully embed this worldview into the people who read them.
Lord of the Rings, for example, is not a Christian book, but Tolkien’s strong faith echoes in every corner of Middle Earth. Good triumphs over evil, and at the last there will be a king who rules over all. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables rests on the twin anchors of fatherhood and sacrifice. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is a journey up a mountain: from darkness into rebirth.
Writing, I think, is not apart from living. Writing is a kind of double living. The writer experiences everything twice. Once in reality and once in that mirror which waits always before or behind. CATHERINE DRINKER BOWEN
These stories echo truths about the world around us: truths that we can all relate to as humans who feel similar emotions and hope for similar dreams. We are alike, we humans, and these books remind us of that. Through reading them, we can learn from the minds of writers who lived hundreds of years ago, falling in love with characters who only exist as words on a page.
The point is, as readers we live a thousand lives. We use stories to gain experience to help us in life. We live through someone else’s experiences, and learn from them. Stories expose us to many different views, warn us of pitfalls to come throughout life, show us the consequences of rebellion and sin, teach our hearts to thrill at the thought of things worth loving, and balance our emotions by showing many different perspectives and viewpoints.
So a good book isn’t just a story to read, but a life-book that will teach you how to live a bigger life once you’ve finished it. Upon closing the back cover, you are richer, and you feel things just a little bit more. There’s a glow in your eyes that wasn’t there before. You feel awakened to new thoughts that you’d never thought of before. A good books conveys experiences to you, so that you are richer as a person having read it.
How to Find out if a book has these things?
How can we spot these qualities? (aside from the costly trial and error of reading a dozen mediocre books to find one excellent book)
First off, trust the classics. Books that have stood the test for thousands of people are often a sure bet. Even if they’re boring or disturbing, many classics are full of buried gold. Consider Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a disturbing examination of human nature. It’s not always pleasant to read, but Conrad is wrestling with questions of existence that have preoccupied men from Aristotle to the modern day.
Jane Austen, a much more pleasant author, does no less considering of the human mind and the emotions. She seeks to study what the self is, and what effects ambition, powerful feeling, and love have on life. The context couldn’t be more different from Joseph Conrad, but the same study of humanity gives both books their value.
We keep these books around for a reason: many different people have found them worth reading. When you’re talking human stories, seeing what other humans have read can take you a long way. And this doesn’t have to be only the classics recommended by university professors. Ask a close friend which book has changed their life. Ask three close friends. Read all three books. After all, your chances are much better than random.
Secondly, you can also practice identifying these qualities as you read new books. With time, you’ll learn how to capture the ideas underneath a book. Look for the intentions behind a book — read the author as his own character. Try to understand what drives him, what could lead him to write such a book. Find the major flow of the book: the recurring themes, the underlying truths. You will find that the main themes of a book will be its most memorable moments distilled into ideas. In other words, not just “what happened” but “what mattered.”
This is why we read books: to matter. We are all looking for transformed lives, turned over topsy-turvy. Seek out the books that work that change within you. Hold on to them, reading them again and again. Read often, and search for books that play on the strings of your heart. Millions of readers have been searching these same paths for thousands of years. You are just the latest traveler on this road.