It had been my intention to codify my Personal Great Books challenge and post it here some weeks ago, but life, and the muddle of my many thoughts on the matter intervened to create a paralysis in my response to the topic. My ideas flitted, from pieces of definitions to lists past, lists present, lists of books I want to read, books I feel I should read, to “great” vs. “good” vs. “mediocre.” It became no longer a matter of a simple definition of “great books”—one could not be found.
The first question I must ask myself is, “Why Great Books?” A certain elitism seems implied when we as readers discard fluffy lightweight pieces in favor of heavy-hitters. Certainly there is always the selfish motivation of wishing to be thought “well-read.” More nobly, my dad once expressed the opinion that we shouldn’t waste our time reading lousy books when so much better are available. (He said this not to mean we should only read the best, rather that we need not bother with the worst.)
For me it comes down to two primary reasons. First, the truly outstanding books have greater depth, they attach and do not let us go, they offer up something new no matter how many times we read them. I listen to and enjoy a wide variety of music, disregarding critical or popular response to any given song or piece, selecting according to my own whims or tastes, as the moment dictates. But if pressed to answer which is the best, I am most likely to point to those works which are critically acclaimed, which showcase the greatest depth, the greatest emotional range, the greatest subtlety, the greatest meaning. It is this I am looking for in the greatest books as well. Second, I find myself wondering about books which are still young: how should I gauge their worth? Will they even be remembered a century from now? If they are, why? What is it that separates the truly outstanding from the ordinary? I cannot begin to measure a book if I do not have a standard to hold it against.
In this vein, what is a great book? I am not sure there can be a rigid definition. As already alluded, I believe that the greatest books contain depth and meaning, not necessarily the same meaning for each reader, or for all times and places. The great books stay relevant, they transcend time and place. Certainly they must be well-written, but I believe it possible to write well without creating a truly “great” work. There is something to be said for being the pioneer of a technique, but perhaps pioneers are not necessarily the greatest or best, albeit they may be the most innovative.
The truly great books can teach us—about ourselves, our society, about life—I mean not that they are mere didactical tools, rather that they may become a mirror of the world as it is, as it was, as it wishes to be, that they may force us into contemplation of our lives and that of those around us. I mean not to imply that lesser books cannot do this as well, but I feel that there is a power behind the greatest books that other books do not reach, that the great books linger longer and push our understandings deeper.
I am forced, as I begin this journey into the Great Books, to look to the lists of others as I begin my journey, to allow the collective wisdom of the ages to help set the standard, the starting point. The works that still linger, that have been universally (or nearly so) acclaimed must contain some element of transcendence or relevance or societal mirror or depth that brings to them such praises. I do not wish, however, to assume that merely because an author is long dead and his work still survives that he (or she) was great. Instead, I would rather consider why a given work is still read. What makes it so special? Is it truly great? What of a more recent vintage could match up with it, if anything? Nor do I wish to assume that merely because a work is new that it could not possibly be as great as those of the past.
I see this as an opportunity not only to explore the definition of greatness, but to expand my literary horizons. I have read many novels from the mid 1800’s through the early 1900’s, almost exclusively American and British (with perhaps a preference towards British literature), but very few outside these bounds. I have only read one book from an African writer (Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe), only one by an Asian (Waiting by Ha Jin) and only a handful of South American novels (all by either Gabriel García Márquez or Isabel Allende). I cannot recall reading anything Russian or German or Scandinavian, anything from Eastern Europe, and have only read Dumas from France, two Spanish novels (admittedly the one was the majority of Don Quixote, which as one of the earliest Western novels isn’t a bad start) and pieces of the Decameron to represent Italy. I have read almost none of the more recently American esteemed novelists—only some Steinbeck and The Great Gatsby, no Hemingway, no Faulkner, no Morrison, no Roth. I have also almost exclusively limited myself to novels, neglecting poetry and plays, excepting some Shakespeare I read in high school. I feel a woefully inadequate reader!
I don’t think I shall create any sort of “master list” of books I will read. I would like this to be fluid, to go where my whims may take me. I will however, keep track of those I do read, so that I may see where I have been. To start with, I believe I will (finally) read The Divine Comedy. I noticed a few weeks back that there will be a read-along later this summer, and I think that could be a good incentive to make my way through the epic.