Posted by: Lizzie Ross | October 5, 2010

What makes a book great?

150th Anniversary Edition

That’s today’s question for the Great Books Week Blogging Challenge.

Not an easy question to answer, since books can be great for different reasons: the characters (real or fantastical), the plot (surprising or reassuringly predictable), the setting (new or familiar), the illustrations (are there any? do they move the plot along or just get in the way?), humor, seriousness, drama, tension — I’ll stop there.

I can easily talk about what makes specific books great: let’s take Moby Dick. Its reputation precedes it. Only a masochist would delve into something so massive and encyclopedic. But you’ve got to admit that it gives you something to chew on with every page. 662 pages, 135 chapters, some of the most iconic characters in all of literature — Ahab, Queequeg, Starbuck, Ishmael — and perhaps the most famous first line.

Such beautiful writing that certain passages make me shiver. The final paragraph (before the Epilogue):

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.

The first line of the Epilogue quotes from Job: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”

Survivor’s tale, sea-faring yarn, quest story, travelogue, biological study, all rolled into one tome. It isn’t for everyone, but imagine the pride you’ll feel if it’s for you. Take the challenge. If nothing else, read the first chapter — Ishmael invites you into his world. How can you refuse such a friendly gesture?

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