Many people are so obsessed with great books that they can’t categorize influential and interesting books as anything but great books. But Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death is merely a good book—a good insight paired with good writing; Neil Postman’s Technopoly is a great book—a great insight paired with great writing.
All sorts of great books abound. And even more very good books exist. It’s a thing of great amusement to me that within a large subset of the present classical education movement—including a knockoff SAT that masquerades as offering something other than a cash grab—that C.S. Lewis’s works are somehow included under the umbrella of great books. But Lewis is definitively not Shakespeare. Not all, or probably even most, of Lewis’s books are great.
His books were important for their times (though many of them are echoed quite equally by his contemporaries). Some of his books are very good, some are interesting, and a few might indeed be great. That Lewis was perhaps a great writer does not make his every work great.
This distinction alone is curious for reading. Is Alexander Solzhenitsyn a great writer OR are his literary works among those accounted as great? (This is an especially complicated split question because his works are only slowly coming into steady English translation, but I’ll note that he is a recent-enough and influential-enough writer that it’s fascinating to me that Lewis gets the acclaim he does yet Solzhenitsyn finds far less patronage from the great books crowd.) One of the difficulties for the great books nerds is that they often lack a category for the very good or great-for-their-moment books. (I genuinely have this question about Technopoly, yet that book’s still trucking along as a prophetic work nigh on thirty years now. Indeed, I may write about this elsewhere, but basically all subsequent tech criticism commentary functions as footnotes to Postman, or Technopoly at any rate.)
The skills or discernment that the reading of great books should bestow should be applicable to contemporary reading. This is why I’m willing to make the judgment that “Pay Attention!” is a world-class essay—I can place it alongside both the sweep of history and its contemporaries. It measures well against history and outclasses its contemporaries. Whether “Pay Attention!” will last is an interesting question, not least because those more influential than I would need to keep it in the public eye.
Another difficulty for the great books nerds is that very good books from history are fun and sometimes significant in ways that the lauded works don’t necessarily do better. For example, E.A. Burtt’s The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions before Kuhn. It’s actually been argued that Kuhn was unknowingly deeply influenced by Burtt via an intermediary source. Flora Klickmann’s The Lure of the Pen is a romp if you like non-great-book perspectives on the writing craft—and I’ll note that she wasn’t a sloppy writer of her period.
It is, of course, the historian in me who appreciates some of these lesser works. Yet it’s not because I’m interested in the everyday writer or the “books that didn’t make it into the canon.” It’s simply that I appreciate odd threads of argument or insight. Some of these very good books aren’t the stuff of greatness, but they still tell us something significant of their period, or they have some other excellent quality that is noteworthy.
I recall someone noting of Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse—a J.K. Rowling favorite—that the work doesn’t demonstrate perfection in narrative or writing, and yet it contains the best food writing you’ll find in a novel. I don’t know if Bill Peet’s books are great children’s literature—okay, I might fight for The Whingdingdilly—but I do know that his marriage of ten-dollar-word text with vivid imagery is something great: the images allow for word selection that is well above grade level. You can’t do the wordsmithing without the glorious images to balance things out. (The last page of Jethro and Joel Were a Troll will never not capture my imagination.)
Very good books can be lively, entertaining, even relaxing. They allow readers to enjoy nice things without persistently needing to be at the level of greatness. Dear Committee Members is a very good book; Rosemary Sutcliff’s memoir is a very good book; Dorothy L. Sayers wrote a bunch of very good detective novels.
So here’s to those very good books.
Happy reading to you,
P.S. I’m retiring this newsletter as of this piece. Entertainments abound since it first started in the early days of quarantining. And while there’s much more I might say, I don’t know that it needs to be said. Or, at least, not by me.