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  • Nathan Greeley

What Is a Great Book?

Updated: May 24

Still Life with Bible by Vincent van Gogh, 1885

It seems obvious that we should all want to read great books. After all, life is brief, our time is valuable, and most of us want the best if we can have it. Of course, as we all know, the truth is that not everyone shares this desire. Some people simply do not enjoy reading any kind of book. Others are put off by the very idea of great books, perhaps because they associate them with books that they find old, boring, and hard to understand, or they think that greatness is only a matter of personal opinion. In our society today these attitudes and views are highly prevalent.

While there is much that could be said in response to these sentiments, here I only wish to make a couple of simple points. The first is that a negative or skeptical outlook about the idea of great books is not fitting for Christians. This is because Christians should know that they are obligated to love God with all of their heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37), and that they ought to think about whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8). These biblical exhortations exclude the possibility of Christians rightly espousing any kind of apathy about learning or relativism about values. It is obvious that one of the chief ways in which believers can demonstrate obedience to both of these imperatives is by exercising their minds in reading and absorbing the content of great books. Given such commands, Christians should doubtless show greater interest in reading such books than non-believers, even if at times it is a challenge or a struggle.

The second point is that skepticism about great books can only really exist in the absence of receptive engagement with them. The more one reads great books, the more one will realize that they bring with them a number of rewards. Experiencing these rewards will be more than enough to dispel any doubts one may have about the value these books possess. Reading them, therefore, should not be seen as merely a Christian’s duty or obligation, however willing one might be to fulfill it. Although books that fall into this category are sometimes difficult or demanding, they contain spiritual nourishment that, when properly digested, brings order to our souls and enables us to have a richer inner life and greater love for what really matters. The best books do not only invite us to pursue the good life; they also show us the way to it and give us a glimpse of its beauty, felicity, and nobility.

Of course knowing that there are great books and that one should read them is not sufficient to get started with them. For we must also ask what makes a book great? How do we distinguish a great book from a merely good one? And how might one tell the difference between a good one and a bad one? Obviously there must be certain qualities or characteristics that can differentiate books in these ways. What are these qualities? While we all have some inchoate notion of the attributes belonging to various types of books, it may be helpful to clarify what these are.

Let us begin with the bad. My view is that a bad book is one that is untruthful to such an extent that whatever redeeming features it may possess are overshadowed by its lack of veracity. Such books tell us things that are untrue about God, ourselves, our world, or what we should find important, and they invite us to believe these falsehoods. The worst books will repeatedly affirm errors with very little admixture of truth. Sometimes a bad book will wear its lack of merit on its sleeve, so to speak, such as in the case of books that focus on attacking Christianity or the reality of God. But often the falsehoods a book tells will be quite subtle. They might take the form of telling people they should make fulfilling their own desires their top priority, or that the key to success is believing in oneself. They can suggest that legitimate authorities are not to be respected or obeyed, or that contemporary people are far more moral and intelligent than people of past generations. Perhaps they assert that everyone should be seen as perfect just the way they are, or that it is always unfair if some people have more than others. The number of possible misrepresentations of the truth is vast.

Though bad books may have some good qualities, such as a pleasant style or some fair points, their preponderant lack of truth will give the discerning person sufficient reason to avoid them. They are simply not worth one’s time, nor the effort required to wade through their pages separating the rare bits of wheat from the mounds of chaff. Though all truth is from God, and therefore valuable wherever it is found, these books do not contain enough of it to allow us to get a return on the investment of time and effort required to get through them.

Does this mean that any book that is full of truth will be a great book? Not necessarily. A good dictionary will presumably be full of truth, but this does not make it a great book. Books about archery, making model trains, or doing computer programming might not contain any falsehoods, but this by itself will hardly qualify them to be on a list of great books. A volume about World War II might be quite meticulous in its factual accuracy, and a novel may have realistic depictions and not attack the truth in any noteworthy way. Yet even so these books might not appear particularly worthy of being called great. Why is this? The problem here is not a lack of truth, but the lack of a particular kind of truth—the kind of truth that matters most. Books like these can rightly be called good books in my view, and they often serve a useful purpose, but they do not rise to the level of a great book, because they don’t talk about and promote the truths that matter most.

What then are these truths that matter most? They are truths which are spiritually nourishing. This means they are truths which concern who God is, who we are as human beings, what makes for a good life, and what awaits us after death. They are truths which make us aware of what our ultimate purpose is, and what beliefs, affections, and habits can serve as appropriate means to realizing that purpose. The Bible, being full of such truths, and in fact containing all of the ones that are truly essential, is the foremost example of a great book. It is the book of books, the enduring and timeless archetype by which all other books must be measured and evaluated. This being so, we can expect other great books to in some way remind us of the kinds of topics, teachings, and stories found in the Bible, whether these other works take the form of histories, biographies, novels, poetry collections, plays, philosophical reflections, or explanations of Christian doctrines. These great works will in some way resemble the Bible, and through this resemblance they will exhibit their value. What all of them will have in common is an abundance of truth that is pertinent to the highest and most important concerns of human life. It is by assimilating these truths that order is brought to our souls, and we enter a state of flourishing. We become wise, pious, humble, grateful, and happy.

Now there are obviously many books that address these matters and contain significant truths but are marred by significant errors. One is here reminded of the writings of some of the great pagan thinkers of the ancient world, such as Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. What should we make of their books? I believe many of them contain enough truth that they fall somewhere on the spectrum between good and great. They often contain insights that are of great value, and that we would be poorer for ignoring. Yet reading them requires discernment, and one must always ask whether the doctrines they set forth are consistent with the truths we know by virtue of what God has graciously revealed to us in the Bible.

If what has been said so far is correct, it can rightly be said that true greatness belongs to books in which a large number of spiritually nourishing truths are found. One might, however, be willing to grant that this is an important aspect of greatness but not be willing to concede that this is the entirety of the matter. One might wonder if there are other pertinent considerations. What about aesthetics? What about beauty? What about books that grab one’s attention with a captivating style? Don’t these things matter? In response it must be said that beauty does indeed have a role to play in understanding greatness. But it is necessary to define what is meant by beauty. Not everything that people find beautiful is relevant here.

To see why this is so, it is necessary to understand that truth, beauty, and goodness are inseparable qualities because all are aspects of being, and all are found wherever being is actual or accurately represented, such as in the ideas of a book. This means that any book that is full of spiritually nourishing truth will necessarily also be beautiful and good. These qualities are always found together. There is no truth where there is no beauty and there is no beauty in the absence of truth. The truth of this statement is of course not obvious. In the eyes of many there are books that succeed in containing much truth but are toilsome to read or dry as dust. There are other books that seem beautifully written but contain abundant falsehoods. How are we to understand this claim that truth and beauty are always linked, given such cases?

If one remains on the surface of what is written, and simply attends to the arrangement of the words or the style of the author, then it must be admitted that it is sometimes possible to see a disconnection between truth and the attractiveness of a text, even a highly notable disconnection. If a reader only considers texts at this level, and identifies beauty with the formal aspects of a work, the claim will appear false. However, if one distinguishes the formal or stylistic qualities on the surface of the text from the underlying significance or value of what is being said, then a book that provides true, life-giving answers to great questions will be seen to contain a deeper and more significant beauty. This may not be a beauty evident to those who focus on how something is said in contrast to what is said, but it will be a beauty that abides in the substance of what is disclosed by the text. Truth really is co-extensive with beauty when we attend to the substance of things, or to their depth of meaning, and insofar as any book informs us of the truths we need to know to flourish and be fulfilled, it will likewise be beautiful in this profounder sense. An attractive style may make a book more enticing, but it is not requisite for greatness, because greatness belongs to the substance of what is said. Whenever the substance of a book contains life-giving truth, a spiritual beauty will be present as well.

There is no doubt more that could be said about what constitutes a great book, but I believe the essential attributes of a great book have been sufficiently defined. To recapitulate the foregoing, Christians should aspire to read great books. Though there are many good books that are worth reading for their accurate factual content or ability to teach new skills, it is important to save time and mental energy for absorbing great books. A great book will resemble, in some way, shape, or form, what we find within the pages of the Bible, which is the exemplar or epitome of a great book. Such a book will present us with a number of truths that we ought to know, need to know, and will be richer for knowing. These are truths that make us wise, that promote the glory of God and abundant life for mankind. To read a great book, then, is to be rewarded with insight and encouragement regarding those things that are most indispensable for us as human beings. It is to be spiritually nourished and helped on our way to becoming the people God made us to be. It is to receive a precious gift from our creator and redeemer and to be established in the truth of which he is the eternal fount and foundation.




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