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Writing Life: Great Books Are Exceptional

For the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at what qualities a book should have to be considered a “classic.” In week one, we looked at “Great books are relevant” (link), followed by “Great books are inexhaustible” (link). Today, we’ll be looking at the quality of exceptionality. Great books stand out. They’re noticeably different from everything around them. Let’s dive in:

There are thousands of books published each year, and most of them will be forgotten. Millions of paperbacks are recycled all the time, and many authors get forgotten. It happens — we’re drowning in information and not everything can be remembered. So usually, when a book is worth saving, it’s because it’s unique in some way, or does something differently than everything around it.

Think of Lord of the Rings, for example, stacked up against Ranger’s Apprentice or Eragon. The latter two series’ are decent books — I’ve read and enjoyed them. Some may enjoy them more than Lord of the Rings. But in general, most people recognize that Tolkien’s immense work in developing languages, histories, and cultures around his story created a world that was (and still is) richer and more complex than just about any world developed since. Middle Earth made Lord of the Rings unique, and made it worth remembering.

So often, a great book will be the first one of its kind to try out a new concept. Jane Austen’s books, for example, were some of the first to get inside a protagonist’s thoughts and feelings. Austen wrote in a third person point of view that was simultaneously very closely connected to her main character, which was unique at the time. Though many books do it now, Austen was the first.

Faulkner, two hundred years later, pushed the concept still further by pushing deeply into his character’s heads and pioneering the stream-of-consciousness writing, along with Virginia Woolf, Henry James, and James Joyce. All of these stood on Austen’s innovations to push still further in their own ways. Great books will often enter in a conversation with each other, using one another to create new and previously unseen ideas in stories (which is why, to be a good writer, it’s important to first be a good reader).

Shakespeare is rightly regarded as a fantastic playwright partly because of his huge, made-up vocabulary. It’s hard to argue his influence on the language when so many words we use today (rant, monumental, and swagger, for example) come from Shakespeare. He wrote something unique that is still remembered today because of it.

Lastly, consider authors who break through the prevailing beliefs and ideas of the day. As special as writing innovations may be, ideological innovations can have an even greater impact on readers. Think of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which shed a realistic light on the Soviet Gulags to its own citizens. Solzhenitsyn was instrumental in showing the Soviet public one of the hidden sides of their own government, and his tiny book rocked the nation.

In short, a great book will stand head and shoulders above its peers: whether in writing innovations, different and new ideas, or even with unexpected twists and writing quality. This doesn’t mean that the book will necessarily be popular or even widely read, but it does mean that there will be something distinct to set it apart from the dozen other books that attempt (and fail to capture) something similar.