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What Makes a Book Great?

May 8, AD 2017 2 Comments

(Warning: spoiler alert for A Tale of Two Cities after the image.)

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Franz Kafka, author of the highly disturbing The Metamorphosis, wrote:

“If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? Good God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. But what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.”

I personally agree with his first and last lines, not necessarily the content in between. Every book is an opportunity to appraise one’s worldview by considering another’s perspective, seeing the world anew through someone else’s eyes. Yet, I do not believe that it is necessary for a book to be distressing in order to be useful, let alone great. There are certainly disturbing books which are generally deemed great classics, such as Frankenstein, The Lord of the Flies, and dystopian fiction such as 1964, The Catcher in the Rye or A Clockwork Orange. Certainly, these are books which can be considered great because they shake us out of our comfortable lives, making us re-evaluate political or moral systems which we may take for granted as mundane facts of our existence.

However, I believe that truly great books are those which awaken us from our ordinary tepidity by inspiring us to strive for virtue, especially heroic virtue: above all, sacrificial love. It is the books which stir our hearts to burn with love for God and our fellowmen which are the greatest and best – the books which move us to marvel at the divine actions mere man is capable of, and thus awaken the desire in us to be truly great human beings.

There are several great books which can jolt us out of our daily torpor and break the sea of potential frozen in us, above all, the Holy Bible. However, I shall not presume to expound upon the myriad wonders of Sacred Scripture; instead, I shall list a number of other books which have stayed with me as a lasting influence which struck to the depths of my heart, and select one which I love.

Tolstoy’s Master and Man, Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, St Thérèse’s Story of a Soul and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables are among the books which spring to mind when I think of great literature. These books are from different genres, lands and centuries, but they all have a common theme: self-sacrifice for the good of another. Often, it is the unexpected, bumbling or aloof character that rises to the occasion in time of need and gives his life to save someone whom he may hardly know, or whom he has no real obligation to save, as in Tolstoy’s and Dickens’ tales. Sometimes, it is one humble soul who gives all in order to save the world, as in Tolkien’s and Beagle’s fantasies – aided by selfless friends who support them in their weakness. “No man is an island,” said John Donne, and these profoundly human tales demonstrate how our interdependence and cooperation with one another bring about goodness, love and life.

A Tale of Two Cities

Compelled to select a single great book, I nominate A Tale of Two Cities as an exemplar of a novel which displays the beauty of true Christlike greatness latent even in wounded human nature. In this thin book, Dickens sketches the unforgettable story of two lookalike men, Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay. Carton is a self-pitying alcoholic lawyer, hardly worthy of admiration. Yet, moved by unrequited love for the wife of Darnay, his unjustly-accused client, Carton takes Darnay’s place at the guillotine; furthermore, he keeps an innocent girl company in the death-cart, buoying her up with thoughts of Our Lord. His last words brought tears to my eyes: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

In this tome, we see the transformation of a near-contemptible man into an unbelievable hero – we see him turned by his selfless love into a saint, crowning his unremarkable life with a deed parallel to St Maximilian Kolbe’s. Our hearts ache in sympathy for him, who had to see his beloved marry another man, after which he became that man’s defence lawyer and finally gave up his life for him. We are rendered speechless by his gift of self – would we do the same in his place? Could we find that strength? He was a weak man, but he could, and he gives us the hope that we can do likewise.

As Mary Flannery O’Connor wrote,

“The serious writer has always taken the flaw in human nature for his starting point, usually the flaw in an otherwise admirable character. Drama usually bases itself on the bedrock of original sin, whether the writer thinks in theological terms or not. Then, too, any character in a serious novel is supposed to carry a burden of meaning larger than himself. The novelist doesn’t write about people in a vacuum; he writes about people in a world where something is obviously lacking, where there is the general mystery of incompleteness and the particular tragedy of our own times to be demonstrated, and the novelist tries to give you, within the form of the book, the total experience of human nature at any time. For this reason, the greatest dramas naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul.”

As Catholics, we are constantly challenged, empowered and inspired to become people who can exhibit Sydney Carton’s Christlike love in complete donation of self for the good of others.

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Winner of a Campion College 2014 The Lord is My Shepherd book grant.

About the Author:

Jean Elizabeth Seah is a 28-year-old law and liberal arts graduate. She has had several adventures with Our Lord and Our Lady, including running away to join a convent after law school. The journey is tough and the path ahead is foggy, but she knows that as long as you hold firmly onto Our Lady’s hand, you’ll make it through! She blogs at http://signum-crucis.tumblr.com/ and http://allthingscatholic.tumblr.com/.
  • I would add “Brother’s Karamazov” as one of the greatest novels ever written. BTW, you might like John Gardner’s “On Moral Fiction.” He argues that unless art leads us to be better, somehow, than we were, it is not art.

    • Ooh thanks for the Gardner recommendation! Yes, one of my friends’ conversion journeys begin with the Brothers Karamazov! It is in my to-read pile… I really must get cracking on that… haha!