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What is a Good Book?

A friend and blog subscriber recently sent me the following quote by the late writer and literary critic Edmund Wilson: "No two persons ever read the same book."

This got me thinking about the whole business of literary criticism, taste and literary standards. If no two persons read the same book, that means that interpretation and taste play a part in a reader's enjoyment, probably the largest part. And that means, by extension, that the definition of 'good' or even 'great' books may be largely subjective.

Who is a critic, really, to say what is good literature? What is a 'great' book?

There are various lists of 'the great books' of English literature, or the great books of Western civilization, based on reputation, sales, continuing popularity, frequency of printing, literary merit according to the 'experts,' or other criteria. One such list was created through an algorithm that generated a master list based on how many 'great books' lists a particular book appears on. The number one book on this list is In Search of Lost Time (A La Recherche de Temps Perdu) by Marcel Proust. My mother, may she rest in peace, a shy, modest, exceedingly literary soul, was rereading Proust when she died, her copy open beside her bed, because she felt there were more depths to plumb. I tried to read Proust, in my mother's memory, and found him, well, unplumbable.

Edmund Wilson heavily criticized J.R. R Tolkien's incredibly popular and enduring Lord of the Rings, calling it "juvenile trash," and "clumsily handled." Wilson criticized the people who enjoy Tolkien, too, saying that in their rapture over the book, "they bubble, they squeal, they coo." (Wonderfully, Tolkien wrote in reply: “Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible, and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.”)

Well. I and many millions of others loved The Lord of the Rings, and we are not one bit intimidated by the supercilious sarcasm of Mr. Wilson.

If we're naming names, though, and accusing others of supercilious sarcasm, I must admit to some of my own. I find the books of Dan Brown, writer of the wildly successful da Vinci Code and one of the richest and most successful writers of the modern era, to be so poorly written as to be unreadable. They are entirely plot driven, with shallow characterization and cardboard writing.

But who am I to say??? Edmund Wilson did not like the books of J.R.R. Tolkien, and I do not like the books of Dan Brown (Mr. Wilson died before he could have a go at those). Edmund Wilson and I did not read the same Lord of the Rings, and I and Dan Brown's legions of fans did not read the same da Vinci Code. So to speak.

It is an interesting exercise to reflect on one's own literary standards. I am a grammar snob, and cannot enjoy a book that has grammatical errors. Those who have read the last couple of posts on this blog will note that grammar standards are changing, as they do with changing times and with cultural changes. I am indelibly stuck in the standards of the twentieth century.

But let's get to the question with which this post began. What is a good book? Is there such a thing, absolutely? Of course not.

And yet. There are standards, at least broad ones, and we know when they have not been met. We may not prefer a particular wine, finding it too dry or too fruity, but we know whether it is 'rot gut' or not. We know whether or not it has not become 'corked.'

We may not particularly enjoy a certain painting, or the work of a certain artist, but we have a sense of whether the artist intended to create work in 'naïve' style or whether, rather, s/he lacked the ability to paint at more than a basic level.

Back to books. We are all entitled to our own tastes, our preference of genres, from detective to humorous to historical fiction, but we know as we read whether the book is sufficiently well imagined, well constructed and well written to be 'a good book.'

Must we be able to dissect a book's virtues? Is it enough to simply say to someone else, "I loved that book" or "this is a really good book, I recommend it"? Should we live in fear of the literary critics who will criticize our taste? Certainly not. There is a place for book reviews, as there is for movie reviews, to help us sort through the many options, but we will not agree with all of those reviews.

In the end we read for pleasure and to learn, and we like what we like. We may value excitement, complex plotting, rich characterization, surprise, deeply painted feelings, detailed, well-researched historical background, etc. We may want fast pacing or patient development. Edmund Wilson was right in this: no two persons ever read the same book. The main thing is to read!

Books not only reflect culture, they affect it. They keep language vital, they advance language, introducing new turns of phrase. They affect culture by giving us new ways of looking at things through new expressions. Shakespeare is responsible for introducing thousands of words and expressions that are now common parlance. Just for a sampler: as good luck would have it; break the ice; clothes make the man; cold comfort; devil incarnate; eaten me out of house and home; a laughing stock; in a pickle; wear one's heart on one's sleeve; wild goose-chase. And on, and on, and on.

I would love to hear your ideas, comments and thoughts about language, writing and reading, and I will endeavor to work them into future blog posts.

Thank you for reading. Until next time.

Oo, THOSE AWFUL ORCS !, By Edmund Wilson. The Nation, April 14, 1956.

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