Junius Johnson: Humane Letters

It’s a simple question, and should be easy to answer: “What books get to count as great books?” And yet, as with most definitional questions in art, it is hard to give a good answer. I think part of the problem is that books don’t stay neatly in our categories and genres and so, for every criterion we set, some great book will come along and transgress it, while yet leaving no doubt as to its greatness. But I would submit that this is not true of any criterion we can give, but only of criteria that are formal (that is, according to their literary form), material (according to their subject matter), or external (according to their reception). I think there remains another way to talk about what makes a book great beyond these criteria, and I believe it will elucidate some of what we mean when we call a book great. To begin with, however, let’s clear away some bad criteria that keep resurfacing and that often control how our book lists are constructed.

First, we must rule out age: great books are not great because they are old. Not every Greek or Roman writer was great, not every Medieval writer was a genius, not every Victorian writer was witty. These things are, by and large, present in all ages to similar degrees and in similar proportions. While it may be tempting, as a response to the temporal prejudice of the modern era in favor of the new, to respond with the opposite prejudice, the path to truth is not easily followed through the jungles of prejudice. All the things we detest most about the lackadaisical writers of our time will be found in previous times as well.

Perhaps the reason we privilege the old is because these books have stood the test of time, and so, it seems to us, that must mean something. Especially given that for so much of history, books had to be copied out by hand: a tedious and expensive affair. So, if it has survived to our age, that must mean it was worth copying over and over again. But this does not follow: we cannot really conclude anything about the survival of a book to our age. Most often this is due to popularity: lots of people enjoyed reading it, so it got copied out a lot. But that does not mean it is any good. And survivability does not even mean popularity: Beowulf survives in only one manuscript, which could mean that it was not very popular at all. Yet we have it because it is the luckiest manuscript in the history of writing, not because anyone we know of thought it was important.

I would also argue, and this one is more controversial, that literary excellence alone does not make a book great. The most technically perfect or even dazzling poems are still not great if there is not more to them than their formal excellence. This is the problem John Dryden made at the end of the 17th century: he noted that Shakespeare’s plays contained literary irregularities and he rewrote a number of them, making them more formally correct and, consequently, and in every case, making them worse. Shakespeare’s originals we still read; Dryden’s more perfect adaptations we do not. This ought not be surprising: greatness is never a matter of technique alone. If it is not joined by something more intuitive and virtuosic, it does not rise above the mechanical.

In what, then, does greatness consist? I would argue that it consists in two things: humanity and translatability. What I mean by humanity is that a great work of literature has to capture something meaningful about being human. This relates to content but it is not the same thing as subject-matter, for a book about the suffering experienced in war or famine might yet fail to represent to us anything powerfully true about being human, while a book about the enmity between two colonies of bees, while containing no human characters, may offer deep insights into the human experience. And so this criterion is not really about subject at all, but about the interaction of content and form that will combine to create an experience.

This experience the reader has is what must be revelatory of humanity. It is an experience the book brokers without being identical to it. Great books bring us face-to-face with deep truths about ourselves, but even while presenting us with concrete images, situations, and judgments, they do not predetermine what we will find when we get there. They take us up on a high peak, from which we may see all the kingdoms of the human soul, and then they watch us to see what we will do with them, and perhaps offer some commentary or critique on the choices we make there.

The second criterion is no less important, and not really separable from the first. Translatability means that the aspect of humanity touched by the work must be one that transcends the local conditions of the work at the time of its writing. I may write a book that perfectly encapsulates the lived experience of the men and women of my age, but if it becomes utterly powerless, incomprehensible, or meaningless when taken out of the context of 21st-century America, it is not really great.

At the same time, if it only has meaning for this culture at this moment, then I haven’t encapsulated our lived experience. For no humans experience the world inhumanly. To be American at this time is to experience humanity in a certain kind of way. Literature is about encountering the world; philosophy is about wondering about the world; theology is about interpreting the world. But it is humans who do these things, and that is why the more authentically human our work is, the more humans of all times and places will resonate with it.

Junius Johnson (PhD, Yale University) is an independent scholar with expertise in theology, philosophy, literature, and the classical tradition. He is the author of 5 books including On Teaching Fairy Stories (CAP 2023) and is the Executive Director of Junius Johnson Academics.


Dr. Junius Johnson
Executive Director, Junius Johnson Academics

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