My previous post talked about Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s classic novel, and how exasperating I found it the first time I read it. That post got me thinking – what are the ingredients of a great book? I’ve read a lot of excellent books, some of which are below, in no particular order:
- The Death of Ivan Ilych – Leo Tolstoy
- The Sound and the Fury and A Rose for Emily – William Faulkner
- To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
- Cry, the Beloved Country – Alan Paton
- The Prince and the Pauper – Mark Twain
- No Country for Old Men – Cormac McCarthy
- A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
What made each of these books memorable? Generally, it’s the character of the characters, if you will, the way they change and evolve as the story unfolds. Sometimes, I just don’t like a character. Take Ivan Ilych. He was caught up in the trappings of life, stuck on a track he didn’t have the strength or desire to even know he should get off of. His impending death stripped the importance he placed on these trappings, frightening Ivan. He sometimes behaved pitifully, but he changed. And I liked it. One of my favorite literary characters is Stephen Kumalo in Cry, the Beloved Country. His basic character traits – honesty, determination and love – remain the same throughout the story, but they deepen and take on dimension as the problems surrounding him grow bigger and uglier. Every time I re-read this book, I find something new to like about Paton’s writing style and Kumalo’s character. I found a couple websites that share “greatest books” lists. Some of these lists share titles, while others have their own opinion. That’s good – what I like in a book might not be what you like. If we can’t talk about what makes a book great, we’re missing the point. But what are the ingredients of a great book? I found a website or two that share some; below are my Top Five Ingredients of a Great Book:
- Characters that make you feel/think. I’ll be clear here: liking the main character isn’t necessary. Characters should evolve and be written about in a way that leaves us feeling something for their struggle, their pain, their glory. I didn’t like Ebenezer Scrooge, but we’re not supposed to like him – that’s the purpose of his character. We can’t like him half as much at the end of the story if we didn’t dislike him so much in the first place!
- A plot I can follow. I don’t need to follow it exactly – twists and turns keep me on the edge of my seat, wondering what the next page will bring. Take McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. The plot is straightforward, and the three main characters (Anton Chigurh, Carson Wells and Llewelyn Moss) have minimal interaction. In fact, the protagonist (Wells) never meets the antagonist (Chigurh). Not once. We expect characters to interact, and when they don’t, the tension created heightens the drama.
- A struggle with an ending that causes character growth. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is an excellent example of this. Scout, the main character, grows and changes as the legal struggle her father is in grows and changes. Scout also evolves when it comes to her misunderstood neighbor, Boo Radley. All these struggles are related and intertwine as the story unfolds. It’s the same with Tom Canty in The Prince and the Pauper – the grass is greener for Tom until he’s immersed in his longed-for life. Then reality hits and Tom is forced to re-examine his previous life in a new light.
- A story ending that isn’t warm and fuzzy. I admit, this one’s completely a personal preference. I don’t always like tidy endings, or fade-into-the-sunset moments. For some books, this is a good way to wrap things up. But for a great book, I prefer endings that make me think. As No Country for Old Men ends, the sheriff, Carson Wells, sits at his kitchen table, telling his wife about a dream he had – it’s metaphorical, representing the struggle he experienced by failing to capture Chigurh. When Wells finishes the recitation, the story ends. Just. like. that. And in Cry, the Beloved Country, the ending was so unresolved that I sat for a minute after I finished the last page…just sat and absorbed it. (Yes, you need to read this one!)
- A story that inspires thought. Maybe you hated it. Hopefully you loved it. But either way, a great book should touch a nerve, resonating within and encouraging you to think about what you read. I’ve tried – many times – to fathom Faulkner, and I doubt I’ll ever get there. But his books leave me thinking, wanting to learn more.
There you have my thoughts on the ingredients for a great book. But more importantly, I’d like to hear about the books you think are great. Why are they great? Why did they move you?