Books are versatile little creatures that mean different things to different people. For some, they are comfort; for others, joy; and for others still they about education. Ten different people can pick up the same book and get something different out of it. It is truly marvelous.
Not all books are created equal, however. Some books are holiday reads, some are stay-up-til-3am reads, and some are what we call literature – classics, literary masterpieces, great books. But really, what’s the difference?
Why is Wuthering Heights a work of literary genius, but The Hunger Games is resigned to the realms of pop culture? Why do we teach To Kill a Mockingbird in school but throw a fit at the thought of Harry Potter making it onto the GCSE curriculum? In short what makes great books great?
English teachers up and down the country probably have a stock answer for this – after all, every September they’re met with a chorus of ‘But Miiiisssss, WHY do we have to study a boring old book written by a boring old white alcoholic?’ They’ll tell you that true literature transcends time, or geography, or culture – or, if it’s really great, all three. Great books have mastered the art of imagery, metaphor, symbolism. Their themes are universal; their structure sophisticated. They are either revolutionary, breaking boundaries in ways that no one ever has before; or they are magnificently traditional, ticking every single check box perfectly.
In fact, the only criteria that great books don’t seem to have to meet is that they’re good stories. No one cares whether or not literature is fun. No dinner party snob ever proclaims that Tess of the D’urbervilles was a real page turner.
But these people, these people who claim that the only good books are great books – and yes, these people sadly exist – are missing out. They’ve never experienced the joy of lying on a beach, reading a cheap paperback in two hours straight. Or of charging down to the nearest bookshop to get the next book in a series, because the ending of the previous one was unbearable and they simply must know what happens next. Or of getting nothing out of a book apart from the joy of physically reading, of escaping for an hour or two while the world passes on by.
Of course, literature is great, and worthy of our time. Important lessons about life, the world, and even the art of writing itself can be learned from the pages of the literary cannon. But sometimes, books don’t need to be transcendental and sophisticated. Sometimes, it’s enough for them to just be a nice story.
Let us know in the comments what you think makes a great book, or follow us on Twitter and share your favourite books with us – literary or otherwise.
Featured image courtesy of Thomas Abbs