“What’s the Definition of a Great Book?”

That headline got my attention the other day. You can read the article, but it’s not a clever, blog-friendly bullet list. The salient point is this:

Pointing—known as ostensive definition—is in fact the commonest way of defining something. What is a tree? A football match? An ear of corn? Sure, you can come up with a form of words, but nothing has the weight and specificity of a particular example put before your eyes. Oh, one of those.

Aha. You see, it’s just too subjective. The best we can do is point to great books and say, “There. And there. Those are great books.” (Nick Kristof does it here.)

But you can see how nonobjective this exercise is. How prone, say, to literary snobbery or personal bias. Me, I’m just happy if you’re reading. Seriously. (And there’s evidence that we are reading more lately: here and here, for example. Good work, y’all.)

Nonetheless, all this pointing got me thinking. How do you define a great book? It’s easy to say, “Wow! That was great!” when you’ve just closed the cover. I do that a lot. I was entertained, I’m feeling good, it was great.

But I think a Great Book is more than that.

My definition of a great book is one that made me think, stopped me in my tracks or otherwise shook me up, evoked a strong emotion (tears, laughter), and/or surprised or shocked me.

It’s one I’m still thinking about a week later (and I probably haven’t started reading anything else in the interim); often years later I fondly recall the experience of experiencing that book for the first time. (Being eleven and laughing out loud over The Once and Future King. I’d always thought reading was something you did silently. Isn’t that why they shush you in the library?) And yes, it’s a book I’ll reread, just so I can feel that way again. Not for nothing is the phrase “lose yourself in a book” so apt.

I know, I know, you’re curious about what makes my list. Herewith a short one just off the top of my head:

Bury Your Dead (Louise Penny)

Dune (Frank Herbert)

Einstein’s Dreams (Alan Lightman)

The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Muriel Barbery)

Empire Falls (Richard Russo)

The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)

The Hobbit (J. R. R. Tolkien)

Oliver Twist (Charles Dickens)

The Once and Future King (T. H. White)

Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)

Possession (A. S. Byatt)

The Time Traveler’s Wife (Audrey Niffenegger)

True Grit (Charles Portis)

A Virtuous Woman (Kaye Gibbons)

So what’s your definition of a great book? I want to know.

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  1. The Other Irishman says:

    The complete works of Raymond Chandler I must have read now five times. I don’t read them for the plots, which are a bit of a mess, but for the wonderful dialogue, turn of phrase, and setting of the mood. As you know well, I cared enough to try and find out exactly where the books were set in modern times. I think books which are a thrilling read because of the plot tend not to be read again. Then again, some books are just too long to read again, even though they are great on first reading (e.g. Naked and the Dead, LOTR – but maybe thats just my slow brain), while some improve over time (e.g. Watchmen)

    • Jamie says:

      Raymond Chandler is marvelous. (I think I must revisit soon.) And I agree on the plot—unless you finally get old enough to have forgotten it (as I have)!

  2. April Line says:

    I agree with you, Jamie, that great books move you long after they’re over. For this, I love *Amy Hempel’s Collected Stories* by Scribner. I just read *Stitches* by David Small which is a graphic novel, and one of the most literary things I’ve ever read. Two books I’ve read recently/am reading now: *A History of My Body* by Sharon Heath, and *Snakes* by Patricia Damery. Both are mostly unknown authors, but I’ve wept twice during *A History of My Body,* and I’m not even half through it. And *Snakes* is just gorgeous, haunting. It’s lovely.

  3. Lisa says:

    I pushed myself to finish Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years Of Solitude, thinking at the time how difficult it was to get through. It seemed to take years to finish–in real time, about three weeks, which is three times as long as usual. Remarkably, though, the book has stayed with me. It’s been about 5 years since I read it and every time I think of it, I feel so thankful that it was recommended to me. It’s a wonderful, albeit challenging, book, one that I never would have chosen for myself but which has stayed with me long after I turned the last page.

    • jamiechavez says:

      Excellent point. I do think you have to choose your “book recommenders” carefully—and then not let yourself be put off by preconceived notions about length and provenance.