When is a Book “Great”?

A post in Salon this week by Laura Miller on “What Makes a Book a Classic?” raises again a perennial and oft debated question. It’s a great post and I’d encourage you to read it. I thought I might take a slightly different tack because one definition of “classic” is that it has stood the test of time, which automatically disqualifies recent authors, including the likes of Kurt Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace, who Miller mentions. I’ve not read David Foster Wallace yet although I have Infinite Jest on my Kindle, and I have to admit that Slaughterhouse Five is the only Vonnegut book I’ve read and that I actually gave up on it.

What I want to explore is what makes a book “great”? Certainly this is also open to debate but this framing allows for current as well as “classic” books to considered. As you consider my criteria, keep in mind that I am not and have never been an English or Literary studies major but rather am simply a dedicated reader who wants to read great books because there is not enough time to read everything.

1. A great book explores great questions about life, questioning both my assumptions and even my questions. Whether it is Babette’s Feast by Isak Dinesan, or Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton, it explores the large issues of love, relationships, grace, justice, life, and death and the Ultimate.


2. A great book matures as I mature. At very least it stands the test of the times of my life. If a book speaks to me at 30 and speaks more profoundly at 60, there is something to it. If I come back to a book and find myself asking, “what did I ever see in that book?”, it may have been entertaining, interesting or even significant for a particular time in my life–but it’s not great. I’m re-reading Pilgrim’s Progress right now and it makes far more sense to me than when I read it in my twenties. This suggests that our early judgments on a book should be provisional. Maybe an immediate clue is that I want to read the book again on completing it because I have a sense that there is “more” there.

3. Normally, great books reflect the elements of good writing in terms of plot (if fiction), character development, narrative, pacing, organization of ideas, felicity of expression, etc. As Miller notes, there may be exceptions such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  I’m also convinced that our standards of “good writing style” have changed over the years.

4. Great writing can be found all over the bookstore. Miller notes that a book is “classic” to booksellers if that is the section where most people look for it. It might be a George Will book on baseball or Doris Kearns Goodwin on Lincoln or Ray Bradbury in science fiction or St Augustine in theology. One of the things I realize I haven’t thought about is how widely this applies. Is there great horror writing, or romance novels, or dystopian fiction (I guess 1984 might qualify here)?  This also raises the question of whether there are genre-specific criteria of greatness.

5. A great book is becoming part of a sub-cultural or cultural conversation. It keeps coming up as the standard of reference around its subject matter. You can’t talk about Russian fiction without talking about War and Peace.

6. I do think that whatever the genre, great writing somehow helps me understand and better live in my world. It clarifies rather than distorts reality, it leads to greater self-understanding, and evokes “the better angels of my nature.”

What are your thoughts on great writing? What, for you are examples of great writing?


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