What Makes a Great Book?

There are realities that are beyond the capability of words to encapsulate.

These unutterable realities are of many sorts. They can be complex emotions, or patterns that exist only in the mind, or even immaterial, insensible truths that, even if they can be quantified or symbolized or assigned a name, stand beyond our grasp, communicated to us only as a glimpse, an intuition.

Many of these words can be named but not fully defined, never fully unpacked in words. “God.” “Grief.” “Paradox.” “Number.”

There are books that delve into one or more of these inexpressible, inexhaustible truths, and speak about them in ways that will confuse us and stretch us and fill us with moments of insight. Those books that do this most effectively, through their combination of form and content, are the great books.

In my view, what makes a great book is that it’s something that is beyond simple agreement or disagreement. Much education assumes that the first task is to understand a book like this, and then the second task is to decide if we assent to its claims or not.

Such an approach not only fails to hear a great book; such an approach actively forces us to silence that great book, to end its beneficial effects in our lives. Agreement or disagreement must be seen as only an imperfect stage in our engagement with the book, a stage that must inevitably be transcended, if we allow the book to continue its work in us. Our agreement or disagreement will always have to be expressed with a question mark, if the book is a great book and if we are good readers.

Find these books. Read them, read about them, read around them, and then come back and read them again. It is a task that will fill up a lifetime, that could fill endless lifetimes. It is the purest human pleasure, the greatest joy, and the foundation of the best sort of life.

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