Five Things That Make a Book Great

The first full week in October is “Great Books Week

NAIWE is sponsoring a Great Books Challenge (with prizes!).  The daily posts and blog prompts can be found on the Great Books Week Blog.

Today’s Challenge: What makes a book great?  Here’s my list of five characteristics they share:

1.  Timelessness.  As cliched as that sounds, it’s true.  All great books have the ability to speak to and be enjoyed by people long after their writers have gone the way of dinosaurs, dodo birds and the Ford Pinto.  Ender’s Game was published in 1985.  My son wasn’t born until 1995.  He thinks of Ronald Reagan as I think of … well, let’s not go there.  Ender’s Game is a classic of the genre because it’s just as good a read now as it was 25 years ago.

2. Humor.  Who didn’t snicker at Tom Sawyer & company attending their own funeral?  Not all great books are humorous (unless you’ve found a translation of Plato that I haven’t read, in which case we really should talk) but most great fiction has at least some moments of emotional release.  Tragedy is looking at the human condition and bursting into tears at the horrible reality – but we don’t always cry.  Sometimes we see the exact same things and laugh – and great books often show us both.

3.  Mirrors.  The best books show us something of ourselves as we are, as we wish we were not, and as we aspire to be.

4.  Justice.  Great books don’t always have happy endings (though more often than not, I think they do), but their endings should be just.  The same principles of natural law that help us differentiate right from wrong rule the literary world too, and though Romeo and Juliet die at the end of the play (delayed spoiler alert. I’ll pretend to be sorry.) at least they died together – and those of you who find that trite might want to reconsider.  I think you’ll find it’s true.

5. Fluffy kittens, unicorns and rainbows.  With a side of bacon. (You knew the snark wouldn’t let me get through this without jumping in.) These are the bells and whistles of fiction.  I’m talking about R2-D2, the concept of “grok,” the Weird Sisters who warn Macbeth to beware the walking trees and every other bit player or concept that sticks with you after you close the cover and let the book gather dust.  No book, and no story, is truly great without them.  Good writers tell a tale, but great writers populate it with more than just inspiring heroes and maidens in distress.  They hand the maiden a shuriken and show her what to do with it.  They give the hero a robotic companion who says more in (often well-bleeped) buzzes and whistles than anyone could with words.  They surprise us, they engage us, and they make us wish we were actually there.

Why include the bacon, you ask?

That’s obvious.  Everything’s better with bacon.

What else makes a book great? Hop into the comments and let me know.

2 thoughts on “Five Things That Make a Book Great

  • October 5, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    I agree! I would also add that great books teach us something about the world, or people, or ourselves, without preaching at us.

  • October 5, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    Definitely! The lack of preaching is a great point – the best ones have a message, but we’re never bashed over the head with it/

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