What Makes A Book Great?
Before we start, I want to take a moment to emphasize that this is exploration not instruction. In other words, this look at great books, big G and small, is not me, expert, holding forth on the subject of greatness, but me, novice, exploring what might be necessary for greatness.
Okay, now that we got that out of the way:
The first qualities necessary for a great book (I shall use the small case when referring to both kinds) are the ones Peter Kreeft mentioned:
Which is another way of saying: a great book has to be a good book, as in a good story that catches our interest, holds together, and makes sense.
(Dang it! The rabbit just ate Sally Candleglow! Darn that fairy-eating rabbit!)
Second comes the things that make us love books. Here are a few that you all mentioned:
Passion: passion in the characters for their lives and in the heart of the author for the story.
Comfort: that the book reiterates what we know about the world, not in a namby-pamby way, but in a manner that requires us to learn even as we are reassured.
Thought-Provoking: the plot, characters, world, etc. should make us think, examine our opinions of things, reconsider how we see the world, or at least a small part of it.
Rereadable: that the book can be reread again and again, with the reader getting something new from it each time.
Entrancing: sucks the reader in and does not let go.
Layered: with nuances and subtlety of world and character.
Exciting: makes one sit on the edge of one’s seat
Touching: makes one cry and laugh—makes one burn with the bliss and suffer the sorrows of all mankind.
And, finally, the Great Ideas:
When I was at St. John’s, I spent a great deal of time thinking about what makes a book Great. I remember talking to some friends about it my senior year. I went in to visit my friend Roger and his girlfriend and talked to them about writing and the nature of books. I remember two things that came out of that conversation.
One was that Roger said that no one should be a writer unless they cannot do anything else. He did not mean here that they were incapable of doing other work, but that they were so drawn to writing that they could not resist its lure. I have remembered that ever since, partially because I think there may be some truth in that. Not that people should not write if they wish to, but that writing as a career choice is a difficult one and one best navigated by people who really have their whole heart in it. But also because it amuses me that Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of Tarzan (which may have more movie versions than any other book) and Princess of Mars, actually had failed at like a million other careers before he became a writing superstar. He actually could not do anything else.
The other was the conclusion I walked away with that Great Books were great because they contained Great Ideas. That it was the ideas that lit us afire, woke us up, made the book come alive to us. The more of these ideas in a book and the better they are conveyed, the better the book.
St. John’s College is based on these great ideas and, in particular, upon Mortimer Adler’s list of 102 Great Ideas. So, for our final section, there are the great ideas themselves:
Angel, Animal, Aristocracy, Art, Astronomy And Cosmology, Beauty, Being, Cause, Chance, Change, Citizen, Constitution, Courage, Custom And Convention, Definition, Democracy, Desire, Dialectic, Duty, Education, Element, Emotion, Equality, Eternity, Evolution, Experience, Family, Fate, Form, God, Good And Evil, Government, Habit, Happiness, History, Honor, Hypothesis, Idea, Immortality, Induction, Infinity, Judgment, Justice, Knowledge, Labor, Language, Law, Liberty, Life And Death, Logic, Love, Man, Mathematics, Matter, Mechanics, Medicine, Memory And Imagination, Metaphysics, Mind, Monarchy, Nature, Necessity And Contingency, Oligarchy, One And Many, Opinion, Opposition, Philosophy, Physics, Pleasure And Pain, Poetry, Principle, Progress, Prophecy, Prudence, Punishment, Quality, Quantity, Reasoning, Relation, Religion, Revolution, Rhetoric, Same And Other, Science, Sense, Sign And Symbol, Sin, Slavery, Soul, Space, State, Temperance, Theology, Time, Truth, Tyranny And Despotism, Universal And Particular, Virtue And Vice, War And Peace, Wealth, Will, Wisdom, World.
I figure that by the time I finish a column on writing about each of these ideas, I will have filled out a good two years or so of posts.
So, this should keep us busy for a while.