What’s there in a great book? | Sunday Observer

What’s there in a great book?

September is the Literary Month. The International Book Fair will soon be held at the BMICH. Book lovers are bound to storm the exhibition looking for their favourite books and authors. Therefore, it is pertinent at this time to know how to judge a great book because most of us do not wish to buy pulp novels and other trash. However, there does not seem to be any end to the making of great books. They are written by many authors in different countries. Therefore, it is nearly impossible to give a comprehensive list of great books in the world.

No matter how long you are going to live, you will not be able to read all the great books. Therefore we should try to read at least a few of them. Although we find it difficult to make a list of great books, the teachers and librarians of ancient Alexandria had prepared such a list. Quintilian did it for the Romans. He selected both ancient and modern classics as great books. During the Renaissance, Montaigne and Erasmus also made lists of great books.

The selection of great books will change with the times. However, if we study the lists prepared by our ancestors, we see a surprising uniformity in them. In every age those who made lists of great books made it a point to include both ancient and modern books. But we do not know whether those who are living in modern times are up to the great books of the past.


We then come to the important point whether there are signs of great books. Some scholars have found certain principles that would help us to judge whether a book is great or not. For instance, most of the great books are widely read. They may not necessarily be best sellers but they are enduring best sellers for all ages. Most of the plays of William Shakespeare are great books, and have been translated into several languages.

Whatever the setting of the plays, and whatever their real subject, Shakespeare was writing about people with attitudes to the world very different from ours. Today we may not believe in witchcraft, be completely uninterested in sacramental notions of kingship, think of ghosts as childish superstition, but Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ would still move and excite us as a study of the ambiguousness of evil and its threat to our moral being. Therefore, ‘Macbeth’ remains a great book.


Shakespeare is not the only great author. Homer who lived long before him wrote ‘Iliad’ which has been read by more than 25,000,000 people in the past 3,000 years. A great book need not be a best seller in its own day. It may take time to attract a large number of readers. The astronomer Kepler’s book on the planetary motions is now a classic. However, when it was published critics said the book might have to wait for 100 years for a reader as God had waited 6,000 years for an observer.

Another rule of the thumb is that great books are popular but not pedantic. There are books written by specialists for specialists. Whether they write on science, philosophy, history or poetry, they discuss human but not academic problems. They are written by ordinary but talented men for ordinary readers who do not read heavy text books. They want to know the elements of a particular subject. They are not interested in the technicalities of the problem.

Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the D’urbervilles’, first published in three volumes in 1891, is generally regarded as his masterpiece, and certainly it is his most ambitious tragic novel. It is considered a great book because it is a story of innocence and sophistication, of man and nature, of history and its relation to the present, concentrated on the fate of a simple country girl whose parents’ chance discovery of their descent from a once noble line sends her to seek the assistance of a degenerated relative to whom she surrenders before parting from him in disgust.

Tess is not a girl of chastity overborne by force or cunning, but a girl who is simple, sensuous and passionate. She is unable to see the cunning of the world and the story ends in tragedy producing in most readers a feeling of plain anger, frustration, and resentment.

Readers should not consider only literary works as great books. There are many other books written on science which can be treated as great works. In ‘Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy’ Isaac Newton uses mathematics to solve physical problems. Although such books are difficult to read, the effort is not in vain. In a way, Newton helps us to make Einstein intelligible.

Great books are never outmoded by the movement of thought or the shifting winds of doctrine and opinion. Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ will remain a classic because the author provides evidence for the Theory of Evolution. When the book was published ‘The Times’ said,“It is a beautifully crafted, intelligible rebuttal of creationism and intelligent design.” The book comes at a time as systematic opposition to the fact of evolution flourishes as never before in many schools worldwide. Dawkins wields a devastating argument against this ignorance while sharing with us his palpable love of science and the natural world. Written with elegance, wit and passion it is hard-hitting, absorbing and totally convincing.

Shifting winds

The fundamental human problems remain the same in all ages. Anyone who reads the speeches of Demosthenes and the letters of Cicero, or the essays of Francis Bacon would find how consistent is the preoccupation of men with happiness and justice. They are also concerned with stability and change. Then there are books that exude great diversity and interpretation. ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and the ‘Odyssey’ can be read by children for sheer enjoyment, but adults will realize their beauty and significance.

Great books reveal new ideas whether you agree with them or not. E.F. Schumacher’s ‘Small is Beautiful’ is a study of economics. The author looks at the economic structure of the Western world in a revolutionary way. He says man’s current pursuit of profit and progress which promotes giant organizations and increased specialization has in fact resulted in gross economic inefficiency, environmental pollution, and inhuman working conditions.

It is only by reading such great books that you can cultivate the human spirit in all its manifestations.

[email protected]