What Makes a Book Good?

I was having an animated chat with one of my superiors at work when the topic of literature came up. Since I am admittedly a dork and majored in English in college, I tend to enjoy this topic of discussion. Here is a paraphrased version of the conversation.

Me: Ulysses is a great book! (I wrote my senior thesis on Ulysses. This is an old argument.)
Other Person: No. It’s terrible.
Me: Whatever. It’s awesome.
Other Person: Speaking of terrible books, I finally read Lolita. It was horrible!
Me: *appalled gasp* What do you mean? It’s an amazing book! Beautifully written.
Other Person: It was awful! He was a pedophile!
Me: That just means the subject matter was awful. It doesn’t mean the book was awful. Fully 35% of all human activity is morally reprehensible. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t write about it!
Other Person: Whenever we have an argument about books, I feel like I lose. Get the heck outta my office!

(Side note: Yes. I say things like ‘morally reprehensible’ in normal conversation. I can’t help myself.)


This topic has come up repeatedly, and no matter who I’m talking to, it always seems to come up around Lolita. If you aren’t already familiar with the themes and you don’t want to read the novel itself, you can check Wikipedia. For my money, although Lolita does deal with a rather horrific topic (pedophelia), it’s still a great novel. It is a beautifully written, deeply disturbing, and fascinating novel for its style, its dealings with memory and the nature and truth of love, and its very controversy. I have several friends and colleagues who disagree with varying degrees of vehemence.

Obviously, this begs the question: what makes a book great? I’m definitely no literary scholar, but I read a lot and it’s something I think about pretty frequently.

I don’t think it’s subject matter. Some of the books that are best respected and most liked today deal with topics that are distasteful to most people, or hard to talk about, or downright criminal. And although I totally made up the “35% of human activity is morally reprehensible” thing on the spot, in retrospect it does seem to make sense. Out of the 7 billion of us on the planet, I’m pretty sure at least 35% of what we do is morally reprehensible to somebody. My deep affection for prime rib and leather clothing would be morally reprehensible to a devout Hindu. And although I find the trafficking of human beings in today’s sex trade inexcusably evil, there have certainly been good books written about it.

To be clear, I don’t think that great books promote morally reprehensible things. I would have a very hard time accepting as a good book (for instance) a certain popular series wherein an emotionally abusive relationship is portrayed as desirable for young women. But there are definitely blurry lines. Is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War a good book? Does it merely promote sound strategy and tactics, or is its end (war) an evil thing, and if so, does that preclude it from greatness or goodness?

I think that the things that make a book great are harder to pin down, not for lack of trying. We can point to specific things, like good metaphors, compelling poetic passages, realistic portrayals of the human condition, and the ability to withstand the test of time. We can talk about status or non-status as a cultural touchstone, themes than run through the book and into society as a whole, or relevance with respect to historical context. But really, it’s kind of an X-factor, and I think in many ways it’s personal. I don’t know if a book is really good until I finish reading it. When I do, if I sit still for a while longer staring off into space thinking about different passages and feeling them as they strike a chord somewhere in my brain, then I know for that it was a good book.

The first time I read James Joyce’s The Dead, it was on an assignment for a class during my senior year of college. But after I finished reading it, I sat where I was for at least a half hour thinking about the role that death and society and family play in my own life. When I finished reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, I was in tears and pretty much inconsolable for quite a while. And melancholy for a good while after I stopped crying. I think the best measure of whether a book is good or not is if it has an impact on us, tangible beyond the pages of the work itself. When the words can reach out and turn themselves into a joyful bubble of laughter, or a heartrending sob or a brooding pensiveness – those are the qualities that make a book good or great.

What do you think?

Love, peace, and literature,

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