Martin Cothran: Great Books Are Great White Whales

In answering the question “Which books are great and why?” there is another question that needs to be answered first: Who should decide which books are great? And one of the nice things about this question is that it is easy to answer. The answer is, quite simply, no one.

No one can decide which books are great (or why).

That sounds dispiriting, of course, since, if no one can decide, it would seem like we could never get an answer to the question. But this is not actually the case. To say that no one can decide is not to say that the question is undecidable. It is simply to say that none of us, by ourselves, can make that decision.

The reason no one person can make the decision is revealed in trying to answer the second question: Why is a great book great? As soon as any one of us attempts to answer that question, we see its impossibility.

By what literary alchemy could we say with confidence that one book is great and another is not? We could try to articulate characteristics that pertain to some and not to others. This sometimes works. But then there is the fact that often some of these attributes are hard to detect in books we call "great" and yet are present in the not-so-great books.

I can be swept away by Gone With the Wind. I can be laid waste by someoneʼs account of a battle. I can be captured by a book about being captured by Indians. But can I say they are great? Often, in reading a so-called "great book," I think of things I have seen in other great books but which this particular one does not have. Sometimes a great book inspires me, sometimes it does not.

A book may be great because it is stylistically well-written. It may be great because it is influential. It may be great because it addresses a great issue greatly. Yet all of these seldom all apply to the same book, which is why no list of great books should be long.

And how can we call both Aristotle's Physics and Shakespeare's King Lear "great"? They seem to be entirely different things. They seem to inhabit different universes altogether. How great must be this word "great" that it could encompass them both.

For these and other reasons, the decision about which books are great is not made by any individual, or even by one generation. It is made by multiple generations, over a long period of time. No individual makes the decision. The decision is made by the whole civilization, over many generations.

Our civilization, the civilization of the Christian West, has made a rough determination of what books qualify as "great." Our civilization, being a civilization, has not formed a committee and issued a report. But it has made a determination nonetheless.

How has it done this? And how can we know what its findings are?

If it were possible, what we would do is to put all the books ever written in a searchable database and calculate the frequency with which certain books were mentioned by other books. To my knowledge this has never been actually attempted. But what has, in fact, happened is that readers and writers over time have become acquainted with certain authors and certain works simply by having seen quotes from them from others, and references to them, and commentaries on them.

Anyone who reads widely knows the names, even though they have not actually read their works. They know, if only by reputation, Plato and Montaigne, Seneca and Shakespeare, Homer and Hemingway, Aristotle and Austen. Or perhaps they simply know the titles, even if they have not read them: The Republic and The Turn of the Screw, Plutarch's Lives and To Kill a Mockingbird, The Faerie Queen and 1984.

We know them by reputation. We discover them by osmosis.

We know them because we have seen them over and over again. And the more we have read the better we know them. Any well-read person has them in his head, scattered about, unfiled, disorganized, covered in mental dust, but they are there nevertheless, to be deployed when taking a book down from the shelf in a bookstore, when he thinks, "Oh, I've heard of that book before," and he takes it in his hand and feels its weight, and wonders what truth, or what good, or what beauty it may contain, and whether reading it will make him a better person.

The ill-read, of course, cannot experience this. They do not know enough to know enough. They must piece together a knowledge they do not have. The only way to learn how to read is by reading. The only way to acquire a knowledge of books is by acquiring it.

Short of trying to develop this ability, they may require an actual list written by someone who does know these books. They are out there. The Great Books of the Western World has a list; Clifton Fadiman's Lifetime Reading Plan has a list; the table of contents to Harold Bloom's How to Read and Why offers a good start; the curriculum at Memoria College, my own perch, has a list.

A great book is a Great White Whale at which we hurl inadequate harpoons. As someone has said, we do not judge the great books; they judge us.


Martin Cothran is Provost of Memoria College and editor of The Classical Teacher magazine.


Martin Cothran
Editor, The Classical Teacher Magazine

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