With this post I (happily, I suspect, to some) conclude my four-part diatribe on what characterizes the best books. So far I've argued that the best books are hard to read--not in their use of arcane language or torturous prose but in the sophistication and moral challenge of their ideas, such that we feel better reading them alongside other people. I've suggested that the best books are humble in the sense that the author has dodged the conceit of thinking he or she has the last or even the only word. I've contended that the best books are humorous in that they acknowledge the silliness and even absurdity that occasionally attends even the gravest circumstances.
That's three attributes of the best books. I draw your attention, in case you missed it, to the prominent feature in each of the letter H. Spend your life listening to sermons and you start to think that way.
The fourth and final attribute of the best books that I will address (there are undoubtedly more, which you're welcome to suggest in a comment or an e-mail, but I'm running out of gas on this concept and four Hs seems like a good stopping point) is this: The best books are human.
Now, that may go without saying in the minds of many; nonhuman animals don't have the technology to write, let alone write well. Give a hundred monkeys a hundred typewriters and an endless supply of paper and toner, and they may eventually throw the entire works of Shakespeare at you--along with their feces--but even then they're not writing; they're copying. But I'm not talking about the humanness of the author; I'm talking about the humanness of the content.
The best books strive to be authentic in their representation of the stories they tell, the ideas they convey. Last night a group of us discussed The Shack, a novel that begins with the abduction of the protagonist's daughter. I'm not arguing that The Shack should take its place alongside War & Peace and Moby Dick--far from it--but the story did remind me of one of my friends.
His daughter, about the same age as the book's abducted daughter, went missing for several days after a boating accident. She eventually resurfaced and is doing fine, but I found myself worried that my naive suggestion that we discuss a book together would prove traumatizing to my friend. So I shot him an e-mail warning him that he might find it hard to read (there's one of those four Hs).
My friend did read the book and during our discussion commented on the parallels between the story he read and the story he lived. He doesn't know what great sadness haunts the author of The Shack, but he does know that the book's description of a child gone missing as experienced by the parent "pretty much nails it." Beyond that, the reflections and emotions that emerged out of the story proved comforting to him as he processed his own experience. Through the story, the author showed solidarity with his reader.
The best books regard the human condition in a way that causes us to regard the human condition differently. Animal Farm is a human book despite the near-total absence of humans; Charlotte's Web is a human book despite the primacy of the nonhuman characters. The best books don't pummel us with the author's dogmatic assertions of what is really real; the best books crawl into our laps and ring true for us, and then we close them and revisit the human race from a fresh, even more human perspective. The best books are human because their readers, and presumably their authors, are human themselves. Through the venue of the book they each get to know one another and themselves a little better. And in that respect the best books are not only serving their readers, they're serving the communities inhabited by their readers, and in the best-case scenario, they change a generation.
So ends my rant. Given these four Hs, I'm curious what books you would nominate as the best books ever. What books do you find particularly hard to read, especially humble, uniquely humorous, profoundly human?