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01:01 pm: Wright’s Writing Corner: Great Books Post Three: What Makes A Book Great?

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.

Originally posted to Welcome to Arhyalon.


[User Picture]
Date:December 15th, 2010 07:06 pm (UTC)
I do think that some of the Great Books are Greater than others. Some of them, I fail altogether to see how they got on the list, unless it's for historical reasons as a part of a generations-long debate over one or more of the Great Ideas.

One of the Great Books from when I was at St. John's--not the same time as you, Jagi, and I know the list does change (and my memory changes things even more)--was a work of philosophical reasoning by St. Anselm of Canterbury. At least, I think it was St. Anselm, but maybe it was someone else.

In this work, the author argued that even if none of his other arguments has convinced you (the non-Christian reader), you should still believe in Christianity because it's a safe bet. If you're an Atheist or a pagan or an agnostic, you believe that when you die that's the end of it, one way or another. But Christianity offers you Heaven if you're a good Christian. So believe in Christianity and be a good Christian, and you can get to Heaven. If Christianity is wrong (as you now believe), you won't be any worse off than you now believe you will be. But if Christianity is right--well--you've won, big time, if only you'll buy in!

I was recently explaining this argument to Dan, in preparation to talking about why we weren't buying in. (I didn't back then, and I don't now.) He interrupted me with a frown and in his most serious voice said, "In that case, I don't know about you, but I'm going for the thousand virgins!"
[User Picture]
Date:December 15th, 2010 07:16 pm (UTC)
LOL That's Pascal's Wager. I just had an online argument with someone that included that.

Boy, Dan's a funny guy.

What would you and I do with a thousand virgins anyway? (Being women, and moms, I suspect what we would do with 1000 virgins if we had them in our care is try to marry them off to nice upstanding gentlemen. ;-)
[User Picture]
Date:December 15th, 2010 07:56 pm (UTC)
Mmm. You could make them clean the house for you, and wash the dishes, and do laundry, and change your baby's diaper. There'd even be leftover virgin to give you a foot massage and watch movies with and maybe you could train a tenth of them to be a prime-rate choir to sing appropriate songs for you at various times.

Still, I'd take the sublime bliss of the Beatific Vision over 1000 virgins anyday. That actually reminds me of the Jehovah's Witnesses' theology. My very first impression from reading their booklet was that their vision of the afterlife seemed very mundane compared to mine.
[User Picture]
Date:December 15th, 2010 08:06 pm (UTC)

Yeah, I often get that feeling about other people's ideas of the afterlife.
[User Picture]
Date:December 16th, 2010 06:01 pm (UTC)
What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him

anything human at all is anticlimax after that
[User Picture]
Date:December 15th, 2010 07:59 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I was thinking when I wrote this that Islam is for the men who take the wager (and think with their, ahem, ...) and Christianity for the wimps^H^H^H^H^H women. It occurs to me that I have no idea what Islam says about the afterlife for women. Maybe we all get a thousand horny 18-year-old guys? Why do I somehow not think so...?

LOL... I think you're probably right about what we'd do with the virgins. What *tsouris* (trouble) that would be--finding a thousand nice upstanding gentlemen! And of course, we'd have to meet all of their parents... but I'm getting silly!
[User Picture]
Date:December 15th, 2010 08:07 pm (UTC)
Gack! It makes one appreciate only having a relatively few kids!
Date:December 16th, 2010 05:35 am (UTC)
Anselm was responsible for a variation of the Ontological Argument. Pascal's Wager was not a standalone argument or general purpose theistic/deistic defense like the venerable Cosmological Argument. It comes at the end of a process of narrowing the choices to Atheism or Christianity. It is also directed at the person who is still undecided, after having been presented with the prior arguments in the Pensées. It's a powerful argument, with in a matrix of supporting arguments. The fact that people tend to deploy it haphazardly, without understanding that context, shows how badly it's misunderstood.
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