Saturday, October 26, 2013

What Makes a Great Book

What makes a Great Book...well, great?

This is a topic of some controversy, especially when it comes to listing the Great Books in any sort of a “canon.” Everyone has their own list, which will not be exactly the same as anyone else’s list. Differences notwithstanding, there are certain works which will appear on most lists—few would dispute that Homer, the Bible, Plato, Aristotle, and Shakespeare make the cut.

One of the most well-known (and—again—controversial) endeavors in list-building is Mortimer J. Adler’s ""Great Books of the Western World," published in 1952 and revised in 1990. Adler’s list is controversial because it focuses exclusively on Western literature, which for a variety of historical and sociological reasons is dominated by male authors of European ancestry. To be fair, Adler did call his catalog "Great Books of the Western World" (as opposed to "Great Books of the World," which might have made a big difference.) A more recent effort in this vein is Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon.

The increasingly egalitarian and global society that has developed since the end of World War II has focused attention on the works of excellent authors who may have been overlooked or neglected due to cultural bias. This has provided an even richer and deeper field from which to choose when selecting candidates for the Great Books.

More useful than attempts at compiling exhaustive lists are efforts to define the criteria by which great works can be identified. Perhaps the single most useful criterion is still the one everyone learns in high school when discussing what makes a classic:

Great Books have stood the test of time.

What this means, exactly, is open to debate—is the “test of time” 50 years? Is it 100 years? Answers will vary—but the underlying concern is separating works of transient interest from those of lasting value. Often this can only be accomplished with confidence when enough time has passed to make it obvious which works have, in fact, lasted.

Anne Perez, in the Winter 1999 edition of the online quarterly "Teaching Great Books," discusses the specific criteria used by Adler when compiling the list for "Great Books of the Western World:"

Great Books are pertinent to contemporary life.
Great Books are worth rereading.
Great Books contain “great ideas.”
Great Books make some sort of impression and/or change in civilization.

Finally, Perez adds a criterion of her own:

Great Books must never forget the complexity of the human spirit.

The meanings of these criteria are open to debate, and the criteria are not exhaustive. Determining appropriate criteria may prove as contentious as attempting to list the Great Books themselves. Thinking deeply and seriously about what makes a work “great,” however, is another treasure of a rich literary tradition.

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