The Best Books in History, and Why We Hate Them
by Morgan Burke, posted on Jan 22, 2005
It's official: "Don Quixote" has been named the Best Book in History, according to a survey of 100 noted writers. This was undoubtedly a great relief to professors and critics of literature everywhere, since the previous Greatest Book survey (Amazon's 1999 Book of the Millenium poll) selected "The Lord of the Rings" as the champ.
That the literati (by which I mean those involved in the production and criticism of literature) should be offended by the selection of Tolkien's epic as the greatest literary work of the past 1000 years is not entirely suprising, since it is pure escapism. Is is also not surprising that the common man should be perplexed by the selection of Cervantes' masterpiece as the greatest book of all time, since it is... well... boring.
What is a tiny bit surprising is that the literati and the common man are so far apart on this issue. After all, one might expect that the Book of the Millenium might at least appear somewhere in the Top 100 Books of History. Most of the books on the list had been penned in the last 1000 years, after all.
Can we blame the academic's well-known fondness for unreadable writers who don't have clue how to tell a good story? Apparently not; Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, and George Orwell were all present on the list of Best 100 Books of History, so popular authors certainly got their due. Can we believe the literary critics, when they opine that The Lord of the Rings is mere escapist fantasy? No; the Best 100 Books of History includes titles such as Homer's Odyssey, Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales, and Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking, so the writers who compiled the list were not completely averse to stories of the fantastic.
But then again, Homer's Odyssey has the distinguished patina of Classical Studies to give it legitimacy, while Fairy Tales and Pippi Longstocking are children's books, which it hardly seems fair to tar with the brush of escapism.
Why "escapist" fantasy should be worse than other fantasy is not immediately obvious: when the average reader devotes days, weeks, or months to the reading of a novel, they are invariably engaging in some kind of escapism. In fact, one might argue that is the whole point--if the poor reader did not desire or require some kind of escape, they would certainly prefer to do their taxes, or go to the dentist, or play with their thumbs on the bus, rather than get lost in a silly ol' book. But in fact, avid readers of fiction, whether child or adult, generally require that their books be at least halfway decent in their escapist qualities. Sometimes books will be recommended in these terms alone: "You should read this, it's a good escape."
Why then do the literati consider "escapism" to be a disparaging term? Do they think that readers ought to be attempting to solve the world's problems (or at least thinking deeply about them) instead of getting lost in a good book? Since they are supposedly promoting literature, that is doubtful, although it often seems to be the case. Many academics and authors do appear to labour under the mistaken impression that they are sociologists, instead of story tellers or critics of story tellers.
Perhaps there is a subconscious feeling that story-telling is ultimately a frivolous occupation, and that consuming stories is an even more frivolous pastime. By transforming story-telling into what seems to be a weightier and far more important pursuit--the documentation of one's society through fiction--the whole idea of literature somehow becomes more legitimized.
It also gets subverted, of course. To a chatty social species like ours, no endeavour is more important than story-telling. It is fundamental to how we behave and succeed--it allows us to learn by proxy from the experiences of others, or from entirely fictional experiences that nevertheless carry important emotional and practical lessons. An anthropologist might say that it allowed us learn about the hazards of mammoth hunting before we ever faced a mammoth in person. Those who had no patience for listening to the stories of experienced mammoth hunters, or of mythical mammoth-hunting heroes, generally got squashed right out of the gene pool. The need to hear a good story is hard-wired into our souls.
But in our modern, utilitarian culture it is easy to be convinced that story-telling (and worse, story-listening) is frivolous. After all, everybody knows that we should be doing something productive instead of watching so much TV. (What nobody ever pauses to think about is why the urge to watch TV is so strong in us.)
When the literati become subconsciously convinced that story-telling is frivolous, they get diverted from the path of literature, and embark on a program of socio-historical rationalization of literature. A story that strongly engages its readers ceases to be a great book, and becomes simply a time-waster. For a book to be properly great, it must make a contribution to the documentation of our society and the human condition. It must become a sort of present-day sociological text, interesting not for its story-telling qualities, but for what it will tell future generations about us.
Consider "War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy. The cover of my copy proclaims it as the greatest novel ever written, and it does, in fact, appear on the Best 100 Books of History list. In all honesty, however, it is fairly marginal as a novel. Full of confused and purposeless characters, an unfocussed plot, and Tolstoy's rambling theories on the nature of history, it regularly derails in the course of its story-telling. Usually it manages to get back on course and become a good novel again for a hundred pages or so, before it loses another wheel and careens off into the fields for a while. The last 40 pages are perhaps the least readable of any novel in human history, which fact alone ought to prohibit its inclusion on any greatest books list.
Yet the literati all seem to agree that it is one of the greatest, if not the single greatest, novel of all time. This makes sense if you are under the delusion that literature only has merit when it coats the hard, bitter pill of history and sociology in a sweet layer of fiction. After all, as a fictionalized socio-historical commentary, "War and Peace" is definitely one of the most important works ever to see print. Not only does it describe in glorious detail the single most momentous event of the 19th Century, Napoleon's disastrous invasion of Russia, but it actually dabbles in textbook-like commentary on the nature of military command, love, and the role of the individual in determining the course of history.
In short, it may have a number of serious failures as a work of fiction, but as an encapsulation of an important sociological event, it is without parallel. For a literary critic who is hyper-sensitive to the fact that fiction isn't taken seriously enough in our serious society, what's not to like about that?
A distressingly high proportion of supposedly great novels are tied to important sociological or historical events in this way. Obviously these events make great fodder for story telling, and so we should expect some good novels to come out of them, but all too often we confuse the greatness of the event with the greatness of the fiction.
Thus we find that a book such as "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck is described in his Nobel Prize bio as "his best work", despite the fact that it may be the least readable and slowest-paced book he ever wrote. Considering that Steinbeck was a downright master at writing zippy, engaging prose, why should "The Grapes of Wrath" go down as the greatest masterpiece of a Nobel-prize worthy career? The answer is simply this: of all his works, "The Grapes of Wrath" is the one with the most sociological significance, encapsulating, as it did better than any other novel, the Dirty Thirties in America. In other words, the critics mistook the book's historical merits for literary ones.
Taken in this context, it becomes clearer why "Don Quixote" was selected in the most recent poll as Best Book of History. As a document of sociological change, it is even more important than "War and Peace" -- it comprises the most eloquent encapsulation of the most complex and momentous event in human history: the transition from the medieval to the modern world. And to put icing on the cake, it did this in an entirely original way: it was a satirical prose novel, what many consider to be the very first of its kind.
Yet, if we are to believe the literati, Miguel de Cervantes absolutely mastered the form of the modern novel on the very first attempt. After all, we are not honouring "Don Quixote" as the first modern novel, but as the Best Book. Ever. In other words, if the literati are correct, the very first modern novel ever written was so damn good that it was impossible to improve upon the form. It's as if by defining the novel, "Don Quixote" automatically relegated all others to the status of derivative mimicry. It's enough to make one wonder why novels ever became such an important form of expression in subsequent centuries, if the form itself had no potential for growth.
But in actual fact, the novel as a literary form has grown far beyond anything Cervantes dreamed, and there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of novels published since 1605 that eclipse "Don Quixote" in sheer story-telling prowess. It is certainly true that the superior qualities of these later novels owe much to "Don Quixote"-- that their authors have "stood upon the shoulders of giants", to quote Isaac Newton. But to follow with Sir Isaac's train of thought, when you stand on the shoulders of giants, you see further. And once Cervantes showed us how to write good novels, we could write better ones.
That doesn't make modern authors more brilliant than Cervantes, nor does it make their novels more important in any academic sense. But it does mean that their novels are better, just as a Boeing 767 is a better airplane than the Wright Brothers' Flyer.
The disparity between the opinions of the literati and the common man on the subject of Best Book Ever basically comes down to the difference between "important books" and "good books". Important books, the ones that draw the interest of academics and professionals, are those that cause or explain change; they leave the world perceptably different after they have been read, or else give us a better understanding of a change that has already overtaken us.
Good books, however, are those that effortlessly transport us into new situations, and tap into our fundamental urge to learn by proxy. The effortlessness of that transport is a function of the author's skill as a story-teller. When he or she succeeds, the reader is completely unaware that they are merely looking at a series of symbols printed on paper; they have in fact been wrapped up up in a fantastic spell, spiritually transposed into a bizarre out-of-body state, and utterly convinced us of what are, essentially, lies. And despite the fact that we know we're being lied to (it's printed right on the back cover: "Fiction") we remain utterly convinced of it, to the point that afterwards we'll rationalize the story as conveying some kind of great moral Truth.
It scarcely needs to be pointed out that important books and good books are not necessarily the same. The most-read book of the 20th Century is Mao Tse-Tung's Little Red Book, but considering that most of its readers were obligated by law to own it, authorities evidently didn't trust that readers would be convinced by the book's own merits. The Bible itself is the prototypical example of this type of book; while it is unquestionably one of the most important books in human history and required reading among practicing Christians, most biblical scholars agree that it is an editorial atrocity, with glaring inconsistencies in both facts and characterization. Christians spend countless hours in Bible Study attempting to make sense of it all. It may be the Good Book, but it's not a very good book.
Which brings us to another point: good books do not need to be explained. We, the readers, should not require intermediaries (be they priests or English professors) to decode the book for us, to tell us what it means, or what the author was trying to say. As a general rule, if it is ever unclear what the author is trying to say, it's not a very good book. It may have a higher than average chance of being an important book, however, and could very well end up in an English or Political Science curriculum somewhere.
Joseph Campbell said that "One of our problems today is that we are not well acquainted with the literature of the spirit. We're interested in the news of the day and the problems of the hour." By "literature of the spirit", Campbell was of course referring to Myth, those stories that encapsulate our most fundamental ideas about how we live. Interestingly, his comment can be applied to the modern literati's insistence that great literature somehow reflect the issues of the day. Meanwhile the common man is left starving for good stories that feed his spirit, stories that resonate with the power of Myth.
All of which brings us back to The Lord of the Rings, the putative Book of the Millenium. You don't have to be a rabid Tolkien fan to realize that The Lord of the Rings is a monumental work. You probably have to be a little bit rabid to get a grasp of how truly monumental that work really is. And the more rabid you get, the more staggering Tolkien's achievement becomes. He basically devoted his entire life, and his considerable academic abilities, to building a structure that would bear the weight of his one story. He didn't just write a popular novel, but created an entire mythology as a foundation for it, a mythology that rings with the sound of truth because it is not the mythology of an imaginary world, but an alternative mythology for our own world. Tolkien took his own knowledge of ancient languages and history, and gave us a better myth than Myth itself had endowed upon us.
And to our everlasting fortune, he happened to be a master story-teller, populating his creation with some of literature's most endearing and frightful characters. The end result of this herculean effort is quite possibly the greatest piece of escapism ever penned by a single human hand.
Tolkien-friendly critics are delighted to draw inferences to the social upheaval of the Industrial Revolution and the moral destruction of the World Wars in their efforts to give The Lord of the Rings some kind of sociological legitimacy, but Tolkien himself rejected any attempts to recast his work as allegory. "I cordially dislike allegory," he wrote, "in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence." In fact, he claims his only motive was to tell a "really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them."
And that he certainly did, if the Book of the Millenium poll is to be believed. But The Lord of the Rings is not a record of our times, or any other time for that matter. Its significance as a socio-historical document is virtually nil. It does not fit into the prescribed model of literature as a reflection of society in any satisfactory way, and so serious literary critics are obligated to disdain it. They know that in four hundred years, social historians seeking to understand the 20th Century will not turn to the Lord of the Rings for enlightenment.
Of course, they'll probably turn to it for a good story. But there is no accounting for taste.
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