So, I've been putting off writing this column for weeks, though not out of any sense of nostalgia. I just haven't known what to say. At the end of 2007, I came up with a simple plan to carry me through 2008, "to read one “great” book a month for the entire year and write about them as I go." With the exception of August, I think I saw it through.
Staring up the slope of '09, I find myself pondering over what I've gained in following The Great Book Adventure. I think I understand greatness a little better. That was at the heart of this whole thing anyway, the feeling that I was missing some of the most important pieces of Western literature. There were titles and authors I'd always heard of, but knew next to nothing about. Don Quixote, Moby Dick, and Walden, were just a few. In reading through some of these high-recognition pieces, however, I came to realize that greatness is a fluid term that gets applied with far too much certainty, if you ask me.
Take Don Quixote, for instance. There are people out there, scholars and laymen alike, some of whom I respect, who absolutely love the book. They won't hesitate to call it the greatest piece of literature ever written. I don't care how many PhDs you have, say that and I think you're nuts. I was so bored through most of it that I began looking at dental surgery in a more positive light. Don't get me wrong, there were parts I thought were magnificent, but as a book, a novel, it was rubbish. I am totally at a loss as to why so many very intelligent people put so much stock in Cervantes's magnum opus doorstop. Were they seeing something I was not? Could I be seeing something they weren't? Well, come to think of it, yeah, both are probably true.
Greatness, I think, is a very personal term, which often changes as we change. It is only natural that my opinions of certain books would differ from the experts, but not because of the gulf in education or experience alone. We are different people, and so approach the books from different angles. We are looking for different things, expecting different results, often unconsciously, and so our understandings of greatness are bound to be disparate. I think greatness is an appellation that we give to things which move us emotionally at a particular time and place. Some things, certain books for example, will move us throughout our lives, while others we simply aren't ready for at that first reading.
And some books will move thousands of other people, but never stir a single one of our eyelashes. Does that make people who love Moby Dick masochistic crackpots? Possibly, but not definitely. Am I an illiterate doorknob for wishing that Melville had fallen off a boat and been eaten slowly by tiny little sharks before getting the chance to write whole chapters about whale biology in a piece of fiction? Hmm…could be, but I don't think so.
My point is this: greatness in literature is what moves you at the moment you read it. The book doesn't have to be well-loved or well-known. It just has to mean something to you as a reader. It could be a great example of a certain time period or a simple story which resonates with you like a middle-C tuning fork. What's important is that you come to the understanding on your own and not let others unduly influence what you think of the book. Can experts and the like help you better understand what you read? You bet. Should you let them form your opinion for you? Never. Had I listened to my gut instead of other people, I likely would have left The Picture of Dorian Gray alone, and if I never read it again, I'll be just fine. Having learned this lesson, I know I won't be picking up anything by Ayn Rand anytime soon. Don't ask me why, but I am positive I will not like her stuff, and that's enough for me.
The other thing I learned through this year, though I sort of already knew it, was that I am firmly in love with stories. Whatever I'm reading, I want it to tell me a story. I want to be captivated, intrigued, hooked on what's before me. The books I've loved the most have always done that. Indeed, the books I enjoyed the most in this series did that too. Oh, they had other things to say, deeper meanings than just plot, but they were first and foremost stories.
Peter Pan was like that, The Wizard and The Lion too. Dickens, well, that guy is just in a whole different league. Even Walden, the only non-fiction I picked up, was something of a story. Much of Thoreau's writing was artfully poetic, and the structure was crafted like a novel in that there was a beginning, middle and end to his year (which wasn't a year at all). Slaughterhouse-Five, which is as crazy and twisted a narrative as any I've read, has taken up a place in my heart because it tells a story. Stories were first spoken, at least in part, to get us through the long dark nights. Not much has changed it seems. There's an awful lot of reality out there and I, for one, need the occasional break.
At the end of things, I can say that The Great Book Adventure was a worthwhile endeavour. I don't think I will be setting such a restrictive guide on my reading again, however. Instead, I will wander from one story to another, looking for flashes of brilliance in the words. I will have a more open eye to the classics, believe me, but I will also trust myself in deciding where to spend my time. The books whose titles you say in all capitals have been around for so long because they have moved so many people. What I am sure of now, though, is that they are by no means the only books which deserve to be called great.