What Makes a Book Great?

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1906 edition of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur

1906 edition of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur

It's no secret that Sonlight values a literature-rich approach to education. We do this because we believe great books present unique learning opportunities. Here are three key reasons we use literature:

1. Literature conveys information in an enjoyable format.
2. Literature conveys information in a form that is easy to remember.
3. Literature encourages you to interact with your kids.

But what, exactly, makes a book "great"? Britannica's Great Books of the Western World series offers one approach. Scholars for this series emphasized the great ideas. The great ideas listed in the series includes 102 different topics, such as angels, art, beauty, courage, democracy, experience, family, God, justice, love, imagination, mind, philosophy, reasoning, religion, truth, virtue and vice, and many others.

Another work, Invitation to the Classics, offers seven criteria for identifying great literature:

"1. The classics not only exhibit distinguished style, fine artistry, and keen intellect but create whole universes of imagination and thought.
2. They portray life as complex and many-sided, depicting both negative and positive aspects of human character in the process of discovering and testing enduring virtues.
3. They have a transforming effect on the reader's self-understanding.
4. They invite and survive frequent rereadings.
5. They adapt themselves to various times and places and provide a sense of the shared life of humanity.
6. They are considered classics by a sufficiently large number of people, establishing themselves with common readers as well as qualified authorities.
7. And, finally, their appeal endures over wide reaches of time."

Great books are timeless, address important themes, are memorable, have educational value, help us keep perspective by avoiding the pitfalls of our own age, and are part of the "great conversation"--human beings grappling with the big questions of life throughout the ages.

Although Sonlight incorporates literature of all kinds, not just "classics," one key reason we do so is because exceptional stories are enjoyable. In short, a great story is fun to read and can engage our interest in ways that textbooks usually can't. This is one reason the parables of Jesus are so engaging.

Lastly, great books help us expand our horizons by allowing us to see and experience things beyond our own limited backgrounds. As C.S. Lewis put it in An Experiment in Criticism, "We want to be more than ourselves ... We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own ... in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself ... I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do."

What great books have impacted you significantly? What elements do you think make for a "great book"? What Sonlight books have you and your children found most meaningful?

Robert Velarde
Author/Educator/Philosopher

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