Initial Thoughts on What You Need to Know about Great Books
You have been told many times that the most successful people, the greatest leaders and innovators who ever lived, are/were voracious readers. Many of these accomplished people seldom disclosed the names of the books in their personal libraries because that was a private matter. However, there is no shortage of lists of the best books of all time to read, but many of those lists are very subjective.
For instance, Amazon published a list of 100 Must-Read Books, and as a powerful and well-known organization, many will pay close attention to that list. I printed out the list and looked closely at each book included. As I was going through the list, I found myself asking, “Why is this book on the list?” For me, several of the books on the 100 Must-Read Books had not stood the test of time, and more than one generation has not enjoyed them. The other question that I asked myself, “Does a must-read book have to be a great book?” My answer to myself is “No.”
So, if you do not have access to the names of the books in the personal libraries of the most successful people, and you want to emulate their reading habits, how can you determine what are the right books to read?
Successful people cherish certain books because of the ideas and lessons they have, and they do not simply read these books, they digest the information, contemplate, and apply the lessons. They actively read the great books which make them think. We know that great books make you think, but what makes a book great?
This is an important question because you need criteria to judge the greatness of books before you read them, if you are reading to shape your mind. I have read several “great” books and did not enjoy them because I could not relate to them – they did not speak to me as an individual so I think that is also important.
Adventures in Learning: Life Lessons from the Great Books
Classic Education: The Essential Value
The Personal Library of George Washington
Why read, what to read, and Teddy Roosevelt
The Personal Library of Carl Sandburg
UPDATE: First published in August 2014
What You Need to Know about Great Books – What Makes a Great Book
In two of the courses that I have taken – Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life and Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: The Essential Value of a Classic Education – for my informal liberal arts education, two professors – J Rufus Fears and Jeffrey Brenzel, give us insights into what makes a book great.
Additionally, Professor Arnold Weinstein defines what is a classic book? Their definitions give us a starting point to decide which books are great and which are the right old books to read.
Professor Fears’ Definition of a Great Book
According to Professor Fears, a great book has the following three essential qualities:
Great theme. A great book is concerned with themes and issues of enduring importance.
- The meaning of life
- Duty and responsibility
- Law, government, and social justice
- Love, jealousy, and hate
- Courage, honor, and ambition
- History and the past
Noble language. Great books are written in noble language, language that elevates the soul and ennobles the mind. It is not the specific language, say Latin or English that is noble. Any language can be used in such a way that it conveys ideas and emotions powerfully and memorably.
Universality. A great book is “a possession for all time” (Thucydides). It speaks across the ages, reaching the hearts and minds of men and women far removed in time and space from the era and circumstances in which it was composed. Thus, a great book summarizes the enduring values and ideas of a great age and gives them as a legacy for generations to come.”
Dean Jeffrey Brenzel’s Definition of a Great Book
Dean Jeffrey Brenzel’s 5 Criteria or Marks of a Great Book
“So first, the work addresses permanent concerns about the human condition. From a philosophical perspective, it has something to say about the way we should live. From a literary perspective, it has something to say about imagining the possibilities for how we could live and from a historical perspective it tells us how we have lived. That’s mark number one of a classic.
Mark number two is that the work has been a game-changer. It has created profound shifts in perspective and not only for its earliest readers, but for all the readers who came later as well.
Mark number three is that the work has stimulated or informed or influenced many other important works, whether directly or indirectly.
Mark number four is that many generations of the best readers and the most expert critics have rated the work highly, one of the best or most important of its kind, even if those experts and readers shared no other views than that and even if they violently disagreed with the work.
Mark number five is that the work usually requires a strenuous effort to engage and understand, but it also rewards the hard work strongly and in multiple fashions.”
Another Definition of a Great Book
In the description for Classic Novels: Meeting the Challenge of Great Literature by the Great Courses for what is a classic:
“A classic novel has the ability to present the world as a more energetic, vibrant, and unpredictable place than we ever imagined.
Classic novels open our eyes to the true nature of our world, and take us across the divide that separates mind from mind.
They reveal to us our essential humanity, both its beauty and its horror, and hold the mirror up to our unknown selves.”
Great Books and Their Influence
The essence is the same for the three definitions of great and classic books. With practice, the definitions will allow us to judge books for ourselves to determine their greatness. Great books have great ideas and lessons that will help to shape our minds if we engage with them.
At this point, I would like to say that although I did not like the delivery of the course Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life, I loved and enjoyed the content because Professor J Rufus Fears raised some interesting points during the course.
One point I would like to address, that had never occurred to me before, is that great books influence people in different ways – good and bad.
Take Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler, who both had a classical education, reading the great books. The two despots particularly loved The Prince by Italian diplomat and political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli. In fact, Hitler loved the content of The Prince so much that he kept it by his bedside. Hitler’s concentration was responsible for the deaths of six million people, and Stalin’s labor camp was responsible for the deaths of 20 million people.
On the other hand, many have read the great books and did not perform such evil acts. This tells me that great books teach us valuable lessons, but it is up to us how we apply the lessons. The lessons we learn from great books can transform us into wise people, or into fools.
Final Thoughts on What You Need to Know about Great Books
What makes a book great? What criteria do you use to judge whether a book is great or not? Although I love the definitions for great books, they are backward looking. That means that time has to elapse to determine which books stand the test of time.
We do not always have that luxury. So, I think the best thing to do, is to study the three definitions, using a few criteria to decide which books have the potential to become great books. I also believe it’s essential to read both classic literature and contemporary books.
How to Find Great Books
Books that Changed the World: The 50 Most Influential Books in Human HistoryThe Great Books: A Journey through 2,500 Years of the West’s Classic Literature501 Must-Read BooksThe Novel 100: A Ranking of the Greatest Novels of All Times