What Makes a Great Book?

27 Dec

Essentially, a great book is one that grabs you on the first page and doesn’t let go, not even at the end, because you walk around thinking about it for the next couple of days.

A great book also is written with beautiful language. The author knows how to play with words to create sensations that go beyond the story. The words make you fall in love with language. This can happen in any language, and even in translations. Few novels are as beautifully written as One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but my Spanish isn’t good enough to read it in the original.

A great book has characters that make you empathize with them, even if they are nothing like you. When Sydney Carton sacrifices his life for his love in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, it touches my heart. “It is a far, far better thing . . .”

As a former English teacher, I am attracted to books with a strong universal truth. Some of my favorites are Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits, and Kate Mosse’s The Winter Ghosts. And a new one with a strong theme of family and the secrets we all keep in The Hiding Place by David Bell.

A great book  needs to stand the test of time. It may become dated, but there is still a truth within it that means something to readers. I think of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. It never failed to delight me when high school sophomores, even within the last ten years, would say how they loved Holden Caulfield, and he reminded them of themselves.

A great book can be old, new, an established classic, or a genre book like The Hiding Place.

What are your “best books?”

2 Responses to “What Makes a Great Book?”

  1. P. C. Zick January 2, 2013 at 1:43 pm #

    I’m a former tenth grade English teacher, too! I agree 100 percent about Catcher. I was the only teacher who would teach it at my high school but I felt it opened up so many doors to communicating about important issues with teenagers. I also adore House of Spirits and have it on my “to read” list again this year.

  2. Helena Fairfax January 25, 2013 at 3:30 pm #

    Hi Kathleen, I loved your list of great books. I thought about One Hundred Years of Solitude long after I’d finished it. And I read The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager, and there are parts of it I’ve never forgotten. Great list!

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