What Makes a Book Great?

There are two questions that I get asked all the time that seem to be a set up for disappointment:


1. What makes a book great?


2. What are your favorite books?


I always get the feeling that I am expected to give some sort of profound answer to the first question. Whenever someone asks me, they take a deep breath before they ask the question, add a dramatic pause between “book” and “great” and then lean in, waiting for their mind to be blown. Each and every time, I also take a deep breath, stare off thoughtfully into the distance and try to think of some poetic way to capture the essence of “great writing” …but each and every time, my answer is the same: feeling.


The greatness of a book has as much to do with the person reading it as it does the person who did the writing. A great book is one that gives its reader a memorable and personal experience. A reader who enjoys literary classics may get a stronger “feeling” while reading James Joyce than they do while reading J.K Rowling. A child curling up in bed might get a stronger “feeling” when they are read Goodnight Moon than when they are read Wuthering Heights (although both might help them go to sleep).


This is why it is so important to understand our audience when we write. Whether it is a book, a short story or column in the newspaper it helps to have these three questions answered:

1. Who is reading it?
2. Why are they reading it?
3. How have they changed or how do they feel when they are finished?


My favorite books are those that have left me with the most memorable and significant feelings for the time period in my life. I have read many “great” books but these seem to stand out from the rest:


1. Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown
2. Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
3. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
4. Something Upstairs by Avi
5. Maniac MaGee by Jerry Spinelli
6. Night by Elie Weisel
7. The Dead (from “Dubliners”) by James Joyce
8. Escape from the Antarctic by Earnest Shackleton
9. Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck
10. Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson (controversy and all)

What Makes a Book Great?