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