Saturday, January 12, 2013

What Defines A Great Book?

This is a question that thankfully arises frequently, particularly when I am asked or ask for recommendations. A question that I suppose is as unanswerable as "What is Art?"

At a precocious age I took it upon myself to read the great classics. The canon of (mostly English) literature, followed by the best of world literature. In hindsight, I would have to agree with Churchill that some books are read too young.  Some require life experience to be understood, others remain as unrelatable then as they are now and many hold up to a reread years later.  I loved The Fountainhead, Moby Dick, Huck Finn, Notes from the Underground, To Kill a Mockingbird, 100 Years of Solitude and 1984. They are among the great books that were formative and that inspired me. I appreciated Jane Austin as a great writer, even though I could not relate to the social issues of her time.

Two books, however, that I despised as a teen and gleefully continue to despise as an adult are Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby. In the unlikely event that a self-important literary critic stumbles upon this blog; there are better books to teach teens about alienation and rebellion. Holden is a whiny brat and should pick a fight with Howard Roark. 

As to The Great Gatsby, here is the book review that I never got to write: The pursuit of materialism is a futile endeavor. *Yawn* It is lonely at the top. Never pursue anyone named Daisy. Rosebud. Look what happened to Smeagol.

Rant over.

To those readers who enjoyed two great classics of American literature that I passionately dislike, I am glad that you enjoyed them.

Where was I?

Individual taste and personal choice. It is important to read books that should be part of our collective consciousness, but what I consider to be a great book is a book that is memorable and thought-provoking. It inspires, reveals, introduces new ideas and changes world views.

Since I am always looking for recommendations, which books are on your great book list?


  1. Fine post.

    I think your point about not being ready for some books is a good one. Sometimes I will go back and re-read something I really liked as a teenager and find it wanting as an adult.

    The best books help you to see the world in a different way. Sometimes I even find that the book is not well written but the ideas inside it are provocative and set you on a new course.

  2. Most of the time I look for lighthearted books that will make me laugh. I often think life is hard enough without reading about the hardships of others. Every now and then I will pick up a serious book and really enjoy it. It really does depend on where I am in my life. I agree with Laoch, the best books do help you see the world in a different way. The Kite Runner has been around for awhile but I only recently read it. It's one of those stories.

    1. @Laoch I have had both happen; books that I did not appreciate as a teen or like you said books that I no longer appreciated as an adult.
      Many science fiction books are like that; idea driven.

      @Meg, try Bryson's Notes from a big country. Non-fiction, but very funny.I have not read it, but am very behind to begin with. Agreed, what we respond to is very individual.

  3. I read Gatsby for the first time in college, and absolutely hated it. Found it to be very boring and didn't really get much out of the message behind the story.

    But like you, I do believe we should all familiarize ourselves with the great works out there. Just so as to have a common ground for discussion among our peers, let alone a drawing board from which to gain inspiration for works yet to be written. Especially to those aspiring writers out there.

  4. I'm always hesitant about jumping into a new book without a recommendation. I worry about things like, "What if the writing's terrible? What if the story doesn't hold my interest? Will the author spend wwwaaayyy too much time setting the scene & describing things? (Hate that) If things aren't working out, can I just pay for the appetizers & leave, or do I be a gentleman & try to finish this date and see this book to its front door?"

    So I need friends to set me up with good books.

    1. @David, there are so many that they could pick instead.
      Exactly, can't collectively dislike it if we have not read it;)

      @Vinny, I know what you mean. I used to force myself to finish books I did not enjoy, then I learned how to skim read. Have you read Excession by Banks?

  5. For me, reading is what makes me human: thinking, questioning, talking, changing, being, identifying, loving, aching.... That's why I believe both your questions about what defines a great book and what defines art are ESSENTIAL, more essential than the book that inspired them. The answers are arbitrary (or better yet, based on personal criteria) and I believe they should be. The point is just to keep asking. Where was I? and What do I believe? and Who am I? Regardless of the title, that's what a great book can do.

  6. For me, a good book is one that is so beaten up and falling apart from tonnes and tonnes of reading.
    My David Eddings books are like that. I swear if they ever make a Sparhawk movie I will cry because I know they will wreck it and not make it at all like I have it playing in my head when I read those books.

    Thank god they got GOT right eh?

    Read Homer's Iliad. Now there's a few days I wont ever get back.. sheesh!

    1. @Dbs, exactly!!!!

      @Sprite, very few books are like that, but I doubt they'll get that right. Read it a long time ago probably the best of its kind. Lost interest in Jordan's books.

      Still have not read them, but did you see the new GOT teaser? :)
      LOL. But now you can say you've read it.


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