Good books? Great books?

Tonight I had a meeting with one of the two book clubs I’m in.  I love being in a book club.  This is the second time I’ve tried to be in one, and the first time it’s stuck for more than two meetings.  OK, tonight was only the third meeting, but still.  It’s exciting!

On the way to the city, I finished Poser, which I maintain is delightful but not life-changing.  On the way home, I couldn’t decide what book to read next.  The wonderful Nicole Krauss’ new novel Great House?  Be a responsible teacher and read one of the two million dystopic novels I’m giving out for Literature Circles next unit (any suggestions on speculative/dystopic fiction that features awesome political rhetoric?)?  Rather than make a decision, I decided to read this week’s issue of The New Yorker.

I subscribe to The New Yorker on my nook because it costs me $5 a month and usually I like it, but I’m definitely not a regular reader.  I don’t generally have time to read an entire issue and, quite frankly, I’m not always interested in the entire magazine.  But occasionally The New Yorker provides me with a gem like this article about the popularity of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (the Girl with the… books).  Now, I haven’t read any of Larsson’s books.  I’ve tried to, but couldn’t make it past the free sample I downloaded on my nook (have I mentioned I love my nook?).  So I was interested to see what Acocella (a writer whose critiques I tend to like) had to say about their appeal.

Acocella argues that the franchise is successful for several reasons:

–Their absolutist morals, which are easier to digest

–The illicit qualities of the violence and sexual encounters

–The mystery behind Larsson himself

And, without having read any of the books, I think she’s probably right.  Bestsellers and popular fiction tends to fall into at least one of those three categories.  The DaVinci Code?  Clear good guys and bad guys, column A.  The True Blood books?  Sex!  Violence!  Column B.  The only one I’m not 100% convinced about is the third criteria, but isn’t part of The Catcher in the Rye’s enduring popularity the mystery surrounding Salinger himself?  Column C it is!

So the article, coupled with tonight’s fractured book club discussion (don’t worry–we’ll get to The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake another day), I began to wonder–what makes a book good?  And are the things that make a book good the same things that make a book great?  I’m not sure I have an answer to either of those questions yet, but they’re intriguing.  Is there a universal list of traits a book must have to be “great”?  Or is greatness entirely subjective?

On a slightly tangential but still, I maintain, related note:  This year is the Tennessee Williams Centenary.  Tennessee Williams, your favorite crazy Southern playwright and mine, would have been 100 this year.  I’ve just made it my goal to see/read/experience one Tennessee Williams thing a month, in honor of Tom’s memory.  So there’s that.



Filed under Magazines

2 responses to “Good books? Great books?

  1. Billy Crocker

    As to what makes a book good/great I agree with Acocella. And as far as Column “C” goes I think a lot has to do with the cult of personality surrounding the author (see Gilbert, Brown, Franzen et. al.)

    I’m a big fan of Chabon…although I wouldn’t call any of his books “great”…not even Kavalier and Clay…but they are all good.

    I think in order to be great a book must A) Tap into something that transcends the specifics of the book, and speaks to the every possible reader without trying to please them all. (See Holden Claufield’s embodiment of everything we are afraid to admit about ourselves.) B) Sweeps us away into another world with its own social norms and dynamics (True Blood…Im guessing…I havent read it) and C) Allows us to put ourselves and our reality into the otherwise fanciful creation of the authors (Angels & Demon’s conspiratorial Vatican.)

    Its a 3 way tension… which unlocks the readers willingness to let go completely. The awareness that the author knows something about myself that no one else does, the suspension of reality, and then the potential of that freedom all make for a great read in my opinion.

    The last Great read? Sunnyside.

  2. I started Sunnyside today because I read a review of it on goodreads that said it reminded the reader of Kavalier and Clay. And Kavalier and Clay is, for me, a GREAT book.

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