What is it that makes the classics great?


Public Domain

Opinion Columnist Kevin Wiggins discusses the properties that make a book great, and the importance of actually taking the time to read the books assigned in Humanities class. Pictured: Albert Camus


What makes a book great? Is it the number of pages? The audience it is was written for? How it is organized? The art adorning the cover? Does it need to have that the new book smell? All of these factors weigh into our decision, but what does a book tell us about the person who penned its pages? I believe that what makes a book great is if its author is able to go beyond their self and communicate with the past for us. Like a priest in a confessional, a great book should connect us with something beyond just the relationship of author and reader.

As UNI rewrites the Liberal Arts Core in favor of “general education” and I enter the final inning of my undergrad – I can honestly say, I have never asked myself “why is this book ‘great’?” in my time at UNI. I can list plenty of “great” books that I have utterly devoured. As a self-styled street preacher for the Humanities, I could rant for hours about the virtues of the Aeneid, the Metamorphoses, the Satyricon, Sappho’s Poetry, the Alexiad, the Bhagavad Gita, the Quran, the Tanakh, Erasmus’s New Testament and so many more! These works are called “great” and I have always accepted these book’s status with the religious glee of a border collie begging for a Milkbone, but what makes them truly great?

I first began to wonder about this dilemma when a friend of mine made a joke about a book he had to read for class. He had no intention of reading it and decided that it quite obviously had nothing to offer him of value. When I tried to raise an argument, I didn’t have anything real to say. It sparked a crisis in me: What value, then, do the classics have? What really does Goethe, Shakespeare or Virgil have for a 20-something in the 21st century?

The answer is communication with people who have come before us, whose accumulated experience in living is full.

Philosopher Albert Camus was castigated by the French intellectual elect in the 1950’s for daring to say that there are things to be learned from the past. Simone de Beauvoir attempted to eviscerate Camus in fiction via her novel, “The Mandarin.” The book is itself a “great” work. Ironically enough, de Beauvoir proved Camus right. Her novel is “great” because it is a window into the way that the last breaths of café culture, and the utter schadenfreude of the post-war French intellectual landscape.

Camus is no Homer or Lao-Tzu, as he doesn’t have the antique sexiness of a Gilgamesh, but I think this case highlights beautifully what makes a piece of art or literature “great.” If a work has the ability to lift off the page the spirit of its characters, or to connect the reader with those who have lived before them, that is an experience which only a “great” work can inspire. A “great” work should, after connecting us with the past, incite in us a better understanding of ourselves, or of the ways people have existed in this world.

Human beings have invented for themselves entire ways of being in time. This world in its intricate, petrifying beauty is truly absurd. It is strikingly hard to make sense of things which are beyond us, and “great” works should not only pull us out of our “self,” but should, in doing so, remind us of how people have done the same things we’re trying to do now for millennia. To be alive is potential. Humans are beings who are blessed with decision, the ability to seek new ends and possibilities in our lives. “Great” works should not only inspire new possibilities, but should remind us of how others were able to find new ways forward throughout history.

Just as Coltrane and Offenbach used their music to inspire, to effect change in their times, great books should be able to either show us how to, or remind us that people have found new ways to navigate this absurdly wonderful world we call home. That is the beauty of art, “great” works and of the Humanities, and I pray that “general education” will keep this in mind. If the most painful aspect of the LAC was that it forced interaction with the wisdom of the people who have come before us, then I think that is more than valuable. As the Nietzschean adage goes, “What doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger,” and that, my friend, is why you should have read Hamlet for you humanities class.