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Epistula | 6 Minutes

3 Ways To Judge the Greatness of a Great Book

3 Ways To Judge the Greatness of a Great Book Written by Ty Fischer
3 Ways To Judge the Greatness of a Great Book

As we prepare for Live Online Registration to open this week, take a moment to read this month's Epistula feature piece from Ty Fischer on understanding what makes a book a truly Great Book.

There has been some controversy recently about the Great Books. Some of this controversy comes from the leveling forces in society that seem to want to claim that no opinion is better than any other. People make arguments that the Great Books are too Western or too English-speaking or just arbitrary. Sometimes I do think that additional books from various cultures may have been overlooked and should be considered among the Great Books, but at other times I shake my head and wonder why the person making the argument thinks that this or that book (usually a modern one) is worth reading.

When you are assessing the Great Books and trying to sort out what is “Great” and what is “great” and what is “good,” here are three rules of thumb that I use:

1. Great Books Have Staying Power

Books are written every year and have been written every year for a long time. Over time books, even books that are very popular initially, fall by the wayside. Perhaps they speak to a specific time or issue that turns out not to be that important (more on that later), or maybe the book just had a really great marketing campaign and sold a lot of copies and was praised by all of the critics. Books like this are like the seed on the stony ground in the parable. They grow quickly, but wilt just as quickly over time.

One might respond, “But doesn’t a standard like this make it hard for really great books written last year to be recognized as Great Books?” Yes, it does and that is how it should be. I am not saying that modern books can’t be Great Books. (Honestly, I do have a fear that we are currently living in a middling culture that does not often produce greatness. De Tocqueville worried about this especially for America.) I am saying that we can not be certain of their greatness for a long time. I am not sure that some of the books that I love like The Great Gatsby will be read a hundred years from now. I do think that Pride and Prejudice will be read until the end of time! But that is a good segway into the second rule of thumb.

2. Great Books Speak to Universal Issues Rather than Time-Bound or Tribal Ones

Great Books are ones that have something meaningful to say to the human condition. The best example of this is the Bible. Every generation men and women go to the Bible and in it they find stories about shepherds and laws and not eating unclean animals. Very few read the Bible to learn practical matters about shepherding and while Orthodox Jews do read to find out how to stay kosher, few people read it while making a meal. The Bible is read every year because it tells us the greatest of stories from the beginning in Genesis to the Fall in the Garden to the call of Abraham to the Law being given to Moses. It chronicles the rise of David and the waywardness of the people. It leads us into exile but restores hope through characters like Esther and Nehemiah. Were we only to have the Old Testament, the Scriptures would be the greatest of books, but the New Testament is the answer to all the riddles and the fulfillment of all the promises. All of the lambs sacrificed are pointing to the one Lamb that was crucified for us.

Other Great Books also speak to universal issues. When we stand with Achilles, we see the dreadfulness of loss and the hopelessness of life outside of Christ. We also see the longing for glory which we still have to navigate today. With Odysseus, we learn how to long for home. With Virgil we discover the courage to fulfill a great calling. With Dante, we see the soul’s journey from the Gates of Hell to the presence of God. In Shakespeare, we wrestle with courage in Hamlet and see how evil consumes and abandons ambitious men and women like MacBeth and his Lady.

Lesser books are often tied too closely to a certain time or to a certain group’s experience that is not a universal experience. Times change. Groups of people change over time. So books that are too tied to a certain time or group can be very useful and enjoyable and insightful, but in the end they likely will not make the grade as a Great Book. This brings me to the problem of Gatsby. I love the book. I love the way it helps us to see inside the Lost Generation and the toxic cocktail of wealth, ambition, and unbelief. It also helps us to see the character flaws that plague ambitious Americans who think that we can always be remaking and reinventing ourselves. Will it make the grade? I am really not sure. I worry that it's too tied to the particulars of place, time, and a group of people, but we will see.

3. Great Books Reveal Truth about Meaningful Matters

This sort of revelation is not all of one sort. There are some Great Books that help us see truth the same way a negative helps us see another side of a photo. If you are young enough, you might not handle film, but back when black and white film was used in cameras the film recorded negatives where all the black was white and all the white was black. In photoshop they transferred the negative onto a film to create the final picture. Some Great Books show us truth by showing us the ugliness of lies—even though at some points the book might be arguing for the lies. Reading these books helps us prepare to fight darkness and lies in our day. An example of this sort of book would be Machiavelli's The Prince. In it, we are told it is better to look moral than be moral if you are a leader. We can see that this is a lie, but we should also know that there are kings and rulers and even Presidents that try to look one way and be another.

Many Great Books, however, are much more straightforward in their teaching about what is true, good, and beautiful. Like Paradise Lost these books deal with majestic issues like the Fall and God’s justice. Even when they are dealing with the country life of the English nobility in the late 1700s and early 1800s, they are really about substantive truths about love and marriage. Every young lady should run from a “Wickam” and hope to find a Darcy or a Bingley. Austen helps us see men and women and their relationships for what they are imperfect sinners who are drawn to each other and whose character is exposed as they relate to each other.

The Great Books are great. They feed your soul. They measure and disciple us. We are blest by them. Using these three standards can help you make good decisions about whether a book is a contender or just a pretender.

Ty Fischer is the Head of School at Veritas Academy in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania since 1997, and serves on the board of the Association of Classical and Christian Schools. He served as the Managing Editor of the Veritas Press Omnibus Project. He received a BA in History from Grove City College and a master of divinity from Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. He has been involved in numerous curricular projects and his experience with the Great Books offers extraordinary opportunities for learning. You can read more of Ty's articles for us on the Great Works and their necessary reception here and here.