Brain Pickings

The Slippery Question of What Makes a Great Book

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“Every book is a sort of machine… You have to read it to find out how it works.”

“A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it,” Italo Calvino wrote in one of his fourteen definitions of a classic, “but which always shakes the particles off.” And yet even if we agree that “a book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another,” there is an infinite range of what different chests can — or want to — hold. The question of what makes a great book is thus notoriously elusive — so much so that even the most celebrated writers of our time can’t agree on the greatest books of all time. That question is what Andy Miller implicitly, and at times explicitly, asks in The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life (public library | IndieBound) — his wonderfully elevating and entertaining memoir of the twelve months he spent reading “some of the greatest and most famous books in the world, and two by Dan Brown.” (With this, at the very outset, comes a comforting character test that casts Miller as the kind of person who cherishes the written word but does so without an ounce of the self-important puffery with which most professional cherishers parade around literature.)

Miller’s project — which parallels Henry Miller’s The Books in My Life in some ways and intersects it at one point — began as an earnest effort to pay off his literary debt by reading many of the books he had “succeeded in dodging during an otherwise fairly literate thirty-seven years on Earth.” His intention was not to construct a definitive canon — he calls the project “a diary rather than a manifesto; a ledger, not an agenda,” a quest to “to integrate books — to reintegrate them — into an ordinary day-to-day existence, a life which was becoming progressively less engaging to the individual living it.”

But perhaps the most rewarding part of Miller’s book is the one prefacing his reading list, where he offers the best definition I’ve ever encountered of what makes a great, one that accounts for the mad — and often maddening — subjectivity of any answer, yet finds beauty and comfort in precisely this slipperiness.

Illustration by Jim Stoten from 'Mr. Tweed's Good Deeds.' Click image for details.

Miller sets the stage with a magnificently mischievous excerpt from author Malcolm Lowry’s 45-page letter to his publisher, who had asked Lowry to defend the unusual novel he had just submitted, Under the Volcano:

It can be read simply as a story which you can skip if you want. It can be read as a story you will get more out of if you don’t skip. It can be regarded as a kind of symphony, or in another way as a kind of opera — or even a horse opera. It is hot music, a poem, a song, a tragedy, a comedy, a farce, and so forth. It is superficial, profound, entertaining and boring, according to taste. It is a prophecy, a political warning, a cryptogram, a preposterous movie, and a writing on the wall. It can even be regarded as a sort of machine: it works too, believe me, as I have found out.

Miller builds upon Lowry’s enchanting metaphor to explore what it is that makes the machine hum:

Every book is a sort of machine and this one is no exception. You have to read it to find out how it works.

What makes a great book? That depends both on the book and the operator… We must acknowledge that greatness recalibrates itself from person to person and book to book. To one reader, “great” may denote unbridled cultural excellence, e.g. the greatness of Tolstoy or Flaubert; to another, it is an exclamation of pleasure, e.g. “One Day by David Nicholls: what a great book!” It may be that when we speak of “a great book” we are referring to a pillar of the Western canon: a classic, in other words. “Great books” of this kind may be important but they are not always straightforward or entertaining. Some, such as Under the Volcano or Ulysses, may require other great books to help make sense of them. Difficulty in a book constitutes a sort of unappealing literary masochism to some; to others it is a measure of artistic genius. Either way, a great book does not have to be a good read to be a great book. Some books become great because the public embraces them en masse; others are judged great by the critical establishment despite public apathy — or even because of it.

As for his own meta-book, he offers this disarming disclaimer:

Whether it is great in itself will depend on whether, as you turn the pages, the machine begins to hum; on whether it comes alive and speaks to you.

Illustration from 'The Jacket,' a picture-book about how we fall in love with books. Click image for details.

And yet the greatest gift of Miller’s book isn’t its evaluative aspect but its contemplative one, which he captures elegantly:

As you read this book, please consider it a passionate defense of those two elements I consider most at risk from our neophiliac desire to read fashionably, publicly, ever more excitedly: patience and solitude.

Indeed, in an age when we don’t know how to be alone and yet our capacity for fertile solitude remains essential for our sanity and creativity, a great book might simply be one between the covers of which we find some temporary refuge of unanxious solitude.

The Year of Reading Dangerously is a delightful read in its totality. Complement it with Tolstoy’s reading list for each stage of life, then revisit Pierre Bayard’s excellent How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.

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Being Mortal: A Surgeon on the Crossroads Between Our Bodies and Our Inner Lives and What Really Matters in the End

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How dying confers upon living “the courage to act on the truth we find.”

“I am not saying that we should love death,” wrote Rilke, perhaps humanity’s greatest sherpa of befriending our mortality, in a 1923 letter, “but rather that we should love life so generously, without picking and choosing, that we automatically include it (life’s other half) in our love.” In Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (public library | IndieBound), second-generation surgeon Atul Gawande grants Rilke’s undying words a new dimension in his sublime contribution to the canon of befriending mortality, which stretches from Montaigne’s meditation on death and the art of living to Sherwin Nuland’s foundational treatise on how we die to Alan Lightman’s wisdom on our paradoxical longing for immortality. In his part-memoir, part-manifesto, Gawande sets out to shed light on our contemporary experience of dying — an experience that, it warrants remembering, begins at birth — and on “what it’s like to be creatures who age and die, how medicine has changed the experience and how it hasn’t, where our ideas about how to deal with our finitude have got the reality wrong.”

Gawande opens by noting the profound rift between anatomy and mortality in his medical education, bespeaking medicine’s general failure to prepare physicians for the most difficult yet deeply humanizing part of human life: our exit from it. “How the process unfolds, how people experience the end of their lives, and how it affects those around them,” he recalls, “seemed beside the point.”

But one particular work forever changed Gawande’s worldview as a student — and it wasn’t a medical text. It wasn’t written by a doctor, but by Leo Tolstoy, whose contemplation of the meaning of existence remains among the most important pieces of human wisdom ever committed to words. The work that so moved Gawande, however, was Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and the following passage in particular:

What tormented Ivan Ilyich most was the deception, the lie, which for some reason they all accepted, that he was not dying but was simply ill, and he only need keep quiet and undergo a treatment and then something very good would result.

Illustration from 'The Flat Rabbit,' an unusual Scandinavian children's book that helps make sense of death. Click image for more.

His tuition, Gawande suggests, went toward a similar deception — medicine’s insistence on isolating the inner workings of the body from the rich and often difficult inner life it houses, especially when that bodily abode begins to fall apart. He writes:

Modern scientific capability has profoundly altered the course of human life. People live longer and better than at any other time in history. But scientific advances have turned the processes of aging and dying into medical experiences, matters to be managed by health care professionals. And we in the medical world have proved alarmingly unprepared for it.

Pointing out that over the past seven decades we have shifted from a culture where most deaths take place in the home to one where more than 80% occur in hospitals and nursing homes, Gawande laments our malignant attitude that casts death as a failure of both doctors and the dying:

Death, of course, is not a failure. Death is normal. Death may be the enemy, but it is also the natural order of things.

[…]

You become a doctor for what you imagine to be the satisfaction of the work, and that turns out to be the satisfaction of competence. It is a deep satisfaction very much like the one that a carpenter experiences in restoring a fragile antique chest or that a science teacher experiences in bringing a fifth grader to that sudden, mind-shifting recognition of what atoms are. It comes partly from being helpful to others. But it also comes from being technically skilled and able to solve difficult, intricate problems. Your competence gives you a secure sense of identity. For a clinician, therefore, nothing is more threatening to who you think you are than a patient with a problem you cannot solve.

There’s no escaping the tragedy of life, which is that we are all aging from the day we are born. One may even come to understand and accept this fact. My dead and dying patients don’t haunt my dreams anymore. But that’s not the same as saying one knows how to cope with what cannot be mended. I am in a profession that has succeeded because of its ability to fix. If your problem is fixable, we know just what to do. But if it’s not? The fact that we have had no adequate answers to this question is troubling and has caused callousness, inhumanity, and extraordinary suffering.

This experiment of making mortality a medical experience is just decades old. It is young. And the evidence is it is failing.

[…]

You don’t have to spend much time with the elderly or those with terminal illness to see how often medicine fails the people it is supposed to help. The waning days of our lives are given over to treatments that addle our brains and sap our bodies for a sliver’s chance of benefit. They are spent in institutions—nursing homes and intensive care units—where regimented, anonymous routines cut us off from all the things that matter to us in life. Our reluctance to honestly examine the experience of aging and dying has increased the harm we inflict on people and denied them the basic comforts they most need. Lacking a coherent view of how people might live successfully all the way to their very end, we have allowed our fates to be controlled by the imperatives of medicine, technology, and strangers.

Piece from Candy Chang's global art project 'Before I Die.' Click image for more.

And yet Gawande extracts the promising potential beneath this cultural failure:

I have the writer’s and scientist’s faith … that by pulling back the veil and peering in close, a person can make sense of what is most confusing or strange or disturbing.

To be sure, Gawande brings a singular lineage of perspectives to this issue — an accomplished practitioner of Western medicine, he was born to parents, both doctors, who immigrated to America from different parts of India. He recalls visiting his paternal grandfather in India — “a dignified man, with a tightly wrapped white turban, a pressed, brown argyle cardigan, and a pair of old-fashioned, thick-lensed, Malcolm X-style spectacles” — when he was older than a hundred. Gawande paints the stark contrast between how his grandfather’s culture handled human finitude and how his own does:

He was surrounded and supported by family at all times, and he was revered — not in spite of his age but because of it. He was consulted on all important matters— marriages, land disputes, business decisions — and occupied a place of high honor in the family. When we ate, we served him first. When young people came into his home, they bowed and touched his feet in supplication.

In America, he would almost certainly have been placed in a nursing home. Health professionals have a formal classification system for the level of function a person has. If you cannot, without assistance , use the toilet, eat, dress, bathe, groom, get out of bed, get out of a chair, and walk — the eight “Activities of Daily Living” — then you lack the capacity to live safely on your own.

Gawande turns to Plato’s dialogue Laches — a text written nearly two millennia ago — for enduring guidance on how to cultivate a healthier relationship with our mortality. In the ancient text, Laches and Socrates go on to propose, then dismiss one by one, a series of definitions of courage, from “a certain endurance of the soul” to “knowledge of what is to be feared or hoped, either in war or in anything else.” They come up with no definitive answer, but Gawande argues that the reader arrives at an implicit one, which he synthesis beautifully:

Courage is strength in the face of knowledge of what is to be feared or hoped. Wisdom is prudent strength.

He considers how the notion of courage illuminates the ultimate act of showing up that is dying:

At least two kinds of courage are required in aging and sickness. The first is the courage to confront the reality of mortality — the courage to seek out the truth of what is to be feared and what is to be hoped. Such courage is difficult enough. We have many reasons to shrink from it. But even more daunting is the second kind of courage — the courage to act on the truth we find. The problem is that the wise course is so frequently unclear. For a long while, I thought that this was simply because of uncertainty. When it is hard to know what will happen, it is hard to know what to do. But the challenge, I’ve come to see, is more fundamental than that. One has to decide whether one’s fears or one’s hopes are what should matter most.

Gawande’s most emboldening point is that reframing our relationship with death, as well as our treatment of the dying, confers greater freedom upon life and more dignity upon the living:

Being mortal is about the struggle to cope with the constraints of our biology, with the limits set by genes and cells and flesh and bone. Medical science has given us remarkable power to push against these limits, and the potential value of this power was a central reason I became a doctor. But again and again, I have seen the damage we in medicine do when we fail to acknowledge that such power is finite and always will be.

We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. Those reasons matter not just at the end of life, or when debility comes, but all along the way. Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?

[…]

If to be human is to be limited, then the role of caring professions and institutions — from surgeons to nursing homes — ought to be aiding people in their struggle with those limits. Sometimes we can offer a cure, sometimes only a salve, sometimes not even that. But whatever we can offer, our interventions, and the risks and sacrifices they entail, are justified only if they serve the larger aims of a person’s life.

In the remainder of Being Mortal, which lives at the intersection of science and philosophy, Gawande goes on to illustrate these ideas with practical examples of better, less limiting, and more dignified models of caring for the elderly and easing our exit from being. Complement it with philosopher Joanna Macy on how death helps us dial up the magic of life.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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Pearl S. Buck, the Youngest Woman to Receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, on Art, Writing and the Nature of Creativity

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“The creative instinct is … an enormous extra vitality, a super-energy, born inexplicably in an individual… — an energy which no single life can consume.”

On December 10, 1938, novelist, essayist, and civil rights activist Pearl S. Buck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces.” Buck was born in China to American missionary parents and spent the first four decades of her life living there — an experience she wove into her beloved book The Good Earth, which had won the Pulitzer Prize six years earlier. Although three other women had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature prior to Buck, she was and remains the youngest female laureate — at 46, she was nineteen years younger than the average laureate in the category and the third-youngest to that point, after Rudyard Kipling and, only narrowly, Harry Sinclair Lewis. The only younger laureate since Buck has been Albert Camus.

Two days after the announcement, on December 12, Buck took the stage at the Swedish Academy to deliver a superb acceptance address, eventually included Nobel Writers on Writing (public library | IndieBound). Although much of the speech is true to its title — “The Chinese Novel” — at its heart lies a broader, exquisitely timeless contemplation of the purpose of art and the vitalizing nature of creativity.

Buck considers the shimmering aliveness of which creative work is born:

The instinct which creates the arts is not the same as that which produces art. The creative instinct is, in its final analysis and in its simplest terms, an enormous extra vitality, a super-energy, born inexplicably in an individual, a vitality great beyond all the needs of his own living — an energy which no single life can consume. This energy consumes itself then in creating more life, in the form of music, painting, writing, or whatever is its most natural medium of expression. Nor can the individual keep himself from this process, because only by its full function is he relieved of the burden of this extra and peculiar energy — an energy at once physical and mental, so that all his senses are more alert and more profound than another man’s, and all his brain more sensitive and quickened to that which his senses reveal to him in such abundance that actuality overflows into imagination. It is a process proceeding from within. It is the heightened activity of every cell of his being, which sweeps not only himself, but all human life about him, or in him, in his dreams, into the circle of its activity.

Noting that art is deduced from this activity, Buck nonetheless cautions against preoccupation with forms and techniques at the expense of clarity of creative vision:

The process which creates is not the process which deduces the shapes of art. The defining of art, therefore, is a secondary and not a primary process. And when one born for the primary process of creation, as the novelist is, concerns himself with the secondary process, his activity becomes meaningless. When he begins to make shapes and styles and techniques and new schools, then he is like a ship stranded upon a reef whose propeller, whirl wildly as it will, cannot drive the ship onward. Not until the ship is in its element again can it regain its course.

She considers the primary — and rather primal, really — focus of the writer:

For the novelist the only element is human life as he finds it in himself or outside himself. The sole test of his work is whether or not his energy is producing more of that life. Are his creatures alive? That is the only question. And who can tell him? Who but those living human beings, the people? Those people are not absorbed in what art is or how it is made — are not, indeed, absorbed in anything very lofty, however good it is. No, they are absorbed only in themselves, in their own hungers and despairs and joys and above all, perhaps, in their own dreams. These are the ones who can really judge the work of the novelist, for they judge by that single test of reality. And the standard of the test is not to be made by the device of art, but by the simple comparison of the reality of what they read, to their own reality.

While William Faulkner, in his own Nobel acceptance speech, asserted that the writer’s role is to be a booster of the human spirit and its highest potentiality, Buck argues that the writer’s primary responsibility is to bear witness to human imperfection and, in the act of witnessing, to offer an assurance and an affirmation of our aliveness:

I have been taught, therefore, that though the novelist may see art as cool and perfect shapes, he may only admire them as he admires marble statues standing aloof in a quiet and remote gallery; for his place is not with them. His place is in the street. He is happiest there. The street is noisy and the men and women are not perfect in the technique of their expression as the statues are. They are ugly and imperfect, incomplete even as human beings, and where they come from and where they go cannot be known. But they are people and therefore infinitely to be preferred to those who stand upon the pedestals of art.

A visual history of Nobel Prizes and laureates. Click image for details.

Complement Nobel Writers on Writing with more superb acceptance speeches by Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Elie Wiesel, then revisit this growing library of notable wisdom on writing from famous authors.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.