The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Are All Books Created Equal?

August 21, 2007
Washington, DC

Are all books created equal? Or are some books more equal than others? These are the questions we stumbled into last week when I made a careless suggestion: Why not mount "quality challenges" to those books in local libraries that offend standards, not of decency, but of quality?

When last we left our hero, which is to say me, I was getting beaten about the head and shoulders for thus implying that some books might be better than others. Swinishly, I dragooned one of the best playwrights in the English language into my corner. Tom Stoppard, it so happens, has a monologue in The Real Thing about great writing where he allows as how, "It's better because it's better."

In the opposite corner, in the Prince-purple trunks, weighing in at 97 pounds sopping wet, is Nick Hornby -- the author of High Fidelity and Songbook, of which I once wrote, "Why doesn't anybody write about books with the same personal, visceral immediacy that Hornby brings to writing about songs?"

Maybe somebody at Believer noticed, because next thing I knew, Hornby himself was writing in that fine magazine about books with the same personal, visceral, etc. Here follows the first of two grafs that my colleague David forwarded me, from Hornby's own thinking about good books and bad (from The Complete Polysyllabic Spree, Viking/Penguin):

"And please, please stop patronizing those who are reading a book -- The Da Vinci Code, maybe - because they are enjoying it. For a start, none of us knows what kind of effort this represents for the individual reader. It could be his or her first full-length adult novel; it might be the book that finally reveals the purpose and joy of reading to someone who has hitherto been mystified by the attraction books exert on others. And, anyway, reading for enjoyment is what we should all be doing. I don't mean we should all be reading chick-lit or thrillers (although, if that's what you want to read, that's fine by me, because here's something else no one will ever tell you: if you don't read the classic or the novel that won this year's Booker Prize, then nothing bad will happen to you; more importantly, nothing good will happen to you if you do). I simply mean, that turning pages should not be like walking through thick mud. The whole purpose of books is that we read them, and if you find that you can't, it might not be your inadequacy that's to blame. "Good" books can be pretty awful sometimes."

There's another graf after this which I'll probably cite in a few days, but you get the idea. Bad books are good, and not just as a gateway drug to better books, but also in themselves, as a gateway into other minds, other lives, other horizons beyond our own. I agree with Hornby completely -- maybe even more completely than I agree with Stoppard.

And maybe this is one definition of good writing: It convinces you, even if it contradicts what convinced you just a minute ago. The usual literary defense of such logical absurdity falls to Walt Whitman, who'll definitely belong near the front of the line when The Big Read gets around to poetry next year. But I think I prefer F. Scott Fitzgerald on the subject, as quoted by John LeCarre in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."

Nowhere can I find where exactly Fitzgerald said this -- any answers out there? -- but it certainly sounds like the author of Big Read favorite The Great Gatsby. Heaven knows nobody else ever has. What's your definition of good writing? More on this soon, since how can you hold two opposing ideas in mind without striking them together to watch the sparks?