We’ve been looking at different qualities that make up a great book: a “classic” story that’s worth passing down for generations. It can be difficult to judge a book well, so this series is an ongoing look at qualities a great book should include (you can catch last week’s at this link). Today’s topic: great books are inexhaustible.
Picture a regular book in your head. You read it through once: it’s pretty entertaining, it features some memorable characters, and maybe it included a neat plot twist you’ve never seen before. It was definitely a great book, you enjoyed it, maybe even read it twice. Perhaps you keep a copy on your bookshelf if you have the space. While it was a great story, what separates an average book like this one from a truly great, timeless book?
Now, compare that book to some of your top favorites. These books are ones you’ve read many times throughout your life. Probably you have a nice hardback edition of some of them, (or a super-worn, very well-used edition), and you often return to them from time to time. Since most of us don’t really re-read books, the books that we do reread must have something special. Why spend precious time rereading a book unless there’s value there?
This is the idea behind great books: they’re inexhaustible. Great books can be inexhaustible in three different ways:
1) They always have more to teach you, even after reading them again and again.
2) They capture one piece of truth in a particularly piercing or unique way.
3) They are from a different perspective or culture than you’re familiar with.
All of these qualities make great books worth returning to again and again. Let’s look at them in order:
Drawing from Deeper Wells
Great books are deep wells that have more to offer than one read can catch
First, there’s always something more to be gleaned from them. When you open them to read them again, there’s something new to learn from them, some new piece that you missed before. Think of four very different authors that I would consider timeless: Fyodor Dostoevsky (my personal favorite), Jane Austen (my latest read: Sense and Sensibility), Toni Morrison (best-known for Song of Solomon and Beloved), and Annie Dillard (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek). All of them wrote about deep insights into humanity that get richer and more visible on each read. You never really reach the end of learning from reading these books. Every time through, Dostoevsky/Austen/Morrison/Dillard are teaching you once more.
This is how it is with great books: they’re deep wells that have more to offer than one read can catch. There’s depth and wisdom in them that’s worth coming back to again and again. Les Miserables’ story of sacrifice and family will never be completely explored or understood by any single person. Dostoevsky’s masterful pictures of humanity in Sonya, Raskolnikov, and Alyosha will always be living pictures, with more to show us about our own desires, dreams, and lives.
More than just words on a page, a great book captures a truth about humanity (see last week’s Writing Life for more on this). And like any truth, we often need it beaten into us. Sometimes, a book captures one facet of an idea perfectly, and you need to come back to that book a half dozen times in your life to fully understand it
“Always Singing One Note”
Next, there are the books that knot your gut and force you to clear a place in your heart for them (and this applies to non-fiction as well as fiction. R. Kent Hughes’ Disciplines of a Godly Man totally shaped my late teen years. I read it at least two or three times, because the truth that was in there needed to be beat into my head. It’s still on my shelf, because doubtless I will need it again someday soon). These are books that may not have great breadth, but capture one idea so well that they’re worth coming back to again and again.
Truths that we build our lives on have a habit of slipping into the background. We forget about them, and sometimes, forget to live them. A great book that plays the same clear note over and over again is valuable because it pushes that truth back into our foreground, and reminds us of why we believe it. As a counterpart to R. Kent Hughe’s book, above, one series that does this well is Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga. I’ve never read a book that shows coming of age and sacrifice more realistically or truthfully.
Sure, “coming of age” is a concept that a lot of novels tackle, but Andrew Peterson’s writing captures it so effectively that the Wingfeather books are stories I want my sons to grow up reading. I want them to aspire to become like Janner Wingfeather, because the picture Andrew Peterson paints is compelling and true to life. While I love Wingfeather for other reasons, this is the deep truth it captures that I will remember it by.
Far, far horizons
Lastly, consider books that challenge us and our assumptions. I haven’t read enough of these as I’d like to admit, but they’re out there — and we should seek them out. These are books that we may disagree with, or may even be wrong, but force us to stretch our horizons and consider ideas that we’ve never thought of before.
After all, isn’t being human only a lifelong search for truth, and meaning?
My own ambition is to read more books from cultures and backgrounds that are different from my own. For example, think of the rich stories told in South America’s magical realist style (Paulo Coelho and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for example), or the Africa reflected in Chinua Achebe. These great books will grab us by virtue of their unfamiliarity. So much richness is waiting to be gleaned from all the other cultures in the world. The books that we’re comfortable with may not push us far enough. These deeply unfamiliar books are inexhaustible in a different sense: what reader can say they’ve read it all, learned it all, and knows it all? Nobody.
Just as I will continue to return to familiar friends in 2016, and just as I will struggle through classics like Les Miserables, one of my goals in 2016 is to explore these far horizons: to broaden my net, and search for truth in many authors, not just ones I’m familiar with. After all, isn’t being human only a lifelong search for truth, and meaning? We can all learn from each other this way.
The Deepest Well
This brings up one final point. As a Christian, I call Jesus my Lord, something that contradicts a lot of the truth in many otherwise-great books. And if I didn’t mention the deepest well of them all I wouldn’t be fully honest. The Bible is the source of truth from which all the other truth flows. As the greatest book, the Bible shows this most perfectly. It’s never fully understood, and there is always more truth to be gleaned, deeper truths to understand, and new truths to discover in the Bible. It is the picture of all three of the above truths.
I want my search for truth to be defined by and shaped in the picture of truth revealed to us in God’s word. While we should always push for deeper understanding and greater knowledge, that push must always come in the context of ultimate truth. After all, we are all created beings — all of a kind with one another — because we were created as one human race, in the image of God. This is his world.
He is what we are all reflecting: some intentionally, some only by virtue of being human and God’s common grace to all. There are a million ways to search for that truth, but in the end, only one Word of God. He is the echo I’m searching for as I push for new horizons and new depths, always pushing for that glorious light that has been revealed, that I see glimpses of everywhere else.