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11:26 am: Wright’s Writing Corner: Writing the Great Book– Part 1, What Makes A Book Great?


(Famous books are not the same as great, but this is still a cool picture. ;-)


Before we discuss the quality that make a great books, we should probably discuss what makes a book great.

First, we should distinguish between the two uses of the term “great books.” For clarities sake, I shall refer to them as great books and Great Books.

A great book is a book you love. Perhaps, it is a book that changed your life. Perhaps, it is one you want to read again and again. Perhaps, it is one that rocked your world, or uplifted you in a time of darkness. Perhaps, it stirred your heart, ignited your passion, or brought you comfort. It is a book that touched you.

A Great Book is a book that did to a whole lot of people what a great book did to you. It is the same thing on a society level: a book that rocked many people’s world; or that introduced new ideas into society; or that led millions of readers to “burn with the bliss and suffer the sorrow of all mankind.” *  It is a book that so many people found great that it outlasted the sandblast of Time, which otherwise clears away all things.

So what makes a book great?

Well, here is an example:

When I was young, I chose to attend St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD because of their Great Books program. I knew I was interested in writing, and I wanted to read the best of what other people had written—the books that touched so many people that they were still around hundreds or, in some cases, thousands of years later.

We read many fascinating books. Some I felt was good, some I could have done without. But there was one book that stood out to me above all the others, one book I thought was truly great, which really did make me burn with the bliss and suffer the sorrows of its characters.

I loved it. I have read it again and again. I turn to it when I need help and inspiration with my own writing. In many ways, I think if it as the best of all novels. I felt that the whole four years, and all the money spent, were worth it for me to have read that one book.

The book was War and Peace.

For me, War and Peace is a Great Book and a great book. It is a book that touched millions of hearts, and one of them was mine.

For our series on Writing the Great Book, we’ll be looking at both kinds, both the books that touched our heats and the books that touched the hearts of people throughout the world and throughout history.

Next week, I will post the initial list. So you, Dear Readers, have one more week to weigh in on what you think makes a book great or Great.

*My dad’s favorite quote from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita. I have also seen it written: “burns with the bliss and suffers with the sorrows of every creature”.


Originally posted to Welcome to Arhyalon


[User Picture]
Date:December 1st, 2010 06:43 pm (UTC)
One question that is interesting to me as a historian is how much time needs to pass after a book's publication before we can begin to judge whether it qualifies as a Great Book. It seems to me that the very definition of a Great Book implies that a significant period of time needs to pass before we can even begin to judge.

There are many books that made a significant, even huge, impression when they first came out, but are now remembered only by scholars. For instance, Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward created a whole movement near the end of the 19th century -- at its peak, there were Bellamy Clubs all over the US devoted to discussion of how to realize the ideal society portrayed in his novel. But interest soon waned, and while his book is still reprinted (mostly because it has fallen out of copyright, so a publisher can add it to their "classics" list for only the cost of typesetting and printing), it's generally read only by people studying it in a course. Until I studied it in a graduate-level seminar class, I never realized it even existed, let alone had such a huge effect upon the thought of the late Gilded Age and the Progressive Era.

Since lastingness is fundamentally a negative test -- we know when a book has failed to stand the test of time, but can never be sure that any given book will continue to do so for future generations -- we are left with the idea that if a book has continued to attract new readers for a certain number of generations, it will probably continue to do so. Which suggests that the period necessary to make the judgment may well be as long or longer than a human lifetime.
[User Picture]
Date:December 1st, 2010 07:00 pm (UTC)
Good question. I had intended, when I thought about this last week, to cover this point, but forgot.

I would say that there are steps. The first step is: does anyone remember it ten years later? Is it still selling?

And then, there is the ultimate step: is it still selling a thousand years later?

But I think the line, the cut-off point between Good and Great, is about three generations. Is the book still selling--still delighting or horrifying or meeting needs-- to the grandchildren of the guys who first read it? How about the generation after that?

If so, then it speaks beyond its original circumstance. This doesn't mean it will still make the cut 200 or 1000 years later, but it does mean that it has risen above its fellows.

Some books really meet some need at the time of their publication--giving some insight into the events of its day...but they fail to carry over, to speak to later geneartions who have different issues and needs. These books may be beloved in their time, but they don't make the jump to Great.

To use two examples:
1) I think Tolkien is rising to the Great Book level. He seems to speak beyond the particulars of the first generation that read him. I would not be surprised if the Lord of the Rings stays around.

2) Books like 1984. These books seem more pertinant now in the day of New Speak (er, sorry, I mean Political Correctness) than they did when they were written. But if our society should ever change to the point where the problems showcased therein are no longer an issue, then these books may fade.

So, to a degree, the test is ever-going-on. Though it is hard to imagine that something that has lasted as long as the Iliad, for instance, will ever fade.

The other thing that makes something a Great Book is: do you need to read it to understand other books? Is it referred to or built upon? Do the authors of later years expect their readers to be familiar with the events of the Iliad, for instance. If so, that, too, draws a book upward.

[User Picture]
Date:December 1st, 2010 08:27 pm (UTC)

long enough to think it through

Looking Backwards had some interesting holes in it.

It has no black market for exchanging goods.

The provisions to prevent slacking on the job seem weak. We get the nasty metaphor of making a horse work harder than donkey, but they don't actually explain their punishments, and it would only raise the question of how you determine ability to judge work, which lays the field wide-open for favoritism. As for fame, which they do use, there is the problem of envy; it is notorious that fellow workers can prevent someone from making them look bad.

How is capital generated? Even if the state reserves some for capital, we know how well bureaucrats administer it.

How about creative work? Novelists, painters, inventors? Do they have to churn out stuff on cue? Or can they effectively slack off once they've got the job?
[User Picture]
Date:December 3rd, 2010 01:06 pm (UTC)

Re: long enough to think it through

I've had that problem with all the utopian works I've read. They all seem to take just part of society and forget other parts.

The only one I didn't feel that way about was Island by Huxley. I thought he did a pretty good job of covering many aspects of human society. Of course, I read it year ago, I have no idea what I'd think now.
(no subject) - (Anonymous)
[User Picture]
Date:December 3rd, 2010 01:07 pm (UTC)

Re: /till we have faces/

I had trouble grokking TILL WE HAVE FACES, but it is one of the favorite books of a friend. So, I know it spoke to her.
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