Once again, I find myself lost in the depths of a great story. For the second time in my life, I’ve picked up Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. My first attempt didn’t end well. Not only was I bored by the character Levin’s part of the story, but I didn’t have any deep emotional connections to the other integral parts. Years later, I have the help of life experiences. All of my romantic triumphs and woes created a place of empathy in me for the story. I realized how balancing Levin and Kitty’s sections were to the plot. I am now completely enthralled.
I’ve stated before how maturity helps a reader appreciate literature better. I’ve been an avid reader since early childhood, but I find that I am a completely different reader as I age. For one thing, I have a compulsive urge to research what others have written about whatever interesting book I’m reading. In the midst of reading Anna Karenina, I continually encounter the fact that it’s considered one of the best books in the world.
I must confess: those prolific “100 Greatest Books” lists have always aroused my interest. On one level, I’m interested in how many of them I have read. On another, I like to argue with the lists, shaking my head in disbelief that one book was rated higher than another or that a certain book was listed at all. The biggest conundrum I fall into, though, is the question of what makes a book great in the first place and who gets to determine that?
When I scroll to the bottom of whatever webpage, I notice that many of the lists claim that they only poll literary experts, scholars, authors, professors, you know, people who know their stuff. Of course, there are the reader polls, but serious lists tend to ignore those, fearing the appearances of the occasional Twilights or Harry Potters that might skew the field. In some ways, I agree with this take, but in another, I am a bit wary. Not every book is great because some smart person said so. And there are many books out there, I am sure, that are absolutely genius, and no one ever mentions those.
How about we come up with our own criteria, huh? I’m sure that the readers of my blog have their own standards when it comes to reading, and we must keep these in mind, even when we are perusing what intelligent scholars say we should read. Here are mine:
1) Characters: The people who populate the stories I read must be believable. They must be well-rounded, easily identifiable, realistic people. Of course, there are the rare exceptions to this rule, especially depending on the genre (for example, adventure stories don’t spend a lot of time expositing the psychological background of their hero). Still, they must be likeable and authentic. I like to like the person I’m reading about, even see a piece of myself in them. (Jane Eyre is my muse for the moment.)
2) Setting: The location of the action can become a character in itself. A great story takes the time to lay out the places where the characters move, talk, live and die. One of my sisters teased me that she couldn’t get through a Thomas Hardy novel because of his pages-long exposition on the heaths of England. Yet, it’s necessary. Wuthering Heights would not have the same power if Emily Bronte did not create the world around the characters that mirrored the turmoil of the story.
3) Plot: Some people would argue that the plot makes a story. In fact, most beginning writer courses drill it into students that the question, “What happens next?” will either make or break a story, depending on how a writer creates the sequence of events. In normal speak, how many of us have been so engaged in a novel that we cannot put it down, even if we have somewhere to be, or a certain strict bedtime, not to mention other homework/housework/secular work that we should be during? For me, I think of anything Dostoevsky has written, especially those scenes between the main character Raskolnikov and the detective, Porfiry, in Crime and Punishment.
4) Theme: In my opinion, one of the most important aspects of a good story is the overarching “take-away”. A good story does not only entertain the reader, but it also educates them about the inner-workings of the world around them. A good story reveals, discusses or shows something important about humanity, the world, our existence. In William Faulkner’s Light in August, we’re shown how racism rips society apart, both the perpetrators and the victims. We learn how society treats outsiders. We learn how we lock up our true selves from those around us and even our own consciousness. Most great novels shine a bright torch on some facet of existence that the secular world endeavors to keeps hidden.
5) Dialogue: Probably one of the hardest ones to master, but a great story pulls it off: how do real people actually talk to each other? The trick is, real people and fictional characters hardly ever say what they mean or mean what they say (which is not the same, according to Alice in Wonderland). A good scene of dialogue says so much and so little, revealing little gems of insight on situations and characters that a reader could never get otherwise. Irish author Elizabeth Bowen’s novels will have you perusing scenes again and again trying to understand what her characters are trying to hide, what farce they’re trying to perpetuate, and the horrible failures of communication that takes place.
6) Craft: The last is the best. A great story contains a certain je ne sais quoi that shrouds the book, because of a writer’s genius in their command of the language. The way their sentences can wrap around your tongue and release a flood of images in your brain. Their special syntax, the poetry of their sentences, their sense of pacing and suspense, their knack for humor. Their profound insight into the soul of a human. It is often of the sort that you cannot help but close the book and feel changed, and the world suddenly receives its wonder and beauty again. This quality is unquantifiable, but every sincere reader knows what it is. I think of James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues, a wistful tale about family, art, human weakness, and human hope.
These are my criteria for what makes a book great. What are your “greatest” books? And what determines its “greatness” in your eyes?