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The Slippery Question of What Makes a Great Book

“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 book; 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.

Published December 12, 2014




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