Sunday, June 7, 2015

Do We Define Greatness By Spark Notes?

People can debate whether or not a book is good or bad but it’s even harder to agree on what’s great.  What standard shall we use to determine greatness and how will we undertake the process to review all books by this standard?  Once a book is deemed great, is it great forever, or will new books push it aside and ascend to the level of greatness once reserved for other books?

Our standards for greatness are defined by a number of measurements.  We look at sales, reviews, awards, surveys, and social media chatter and determine certain authors and books are far better than others.  Sometimes they are first to write about something, or they happen to write about something in a certain way at the right time.  Greatness is more of a generational thing than an all-time definition.  We can only compare writers against their contemporaries and peers.  Sometimes we can seek to put their work in the context of the past, but we certainly can’t even anticipate how they’d stack up with the future.

There is a general consensus on what’s great or a classic, in part, because the past was less crowded than today’s book marketplace.  Far fewer books were published decades ago and certainly centuries ago.  It was easier to catalog and compare writers back then.  We don’t argue that William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, and James Joyce produced great works.  Now we have Ray Bradbury, Dan Brown, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, and JK Rowling to revere.  But how much time must go by for us to realize a book has a lasting sales power, social significance, or even influence on other writers?

Spark Notes, similar to Monarch or Cliff Notes, now published by Barnes & Noble, has identified hundreds of books that are worth reading and that lend themselves to critical evaluations and explanations.  Spark Notes reflect the common selection of titles by schools.  Students are studying Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.  There’s merit to each of these books, and each one occupies a space on the Spark Notes list.  Out of millions and millions of books ever published, only 600-700 titles are covered by Spark Notes for literature.

Do we ever revisit the past to rediscover the works of other time periods that perhaps, under new considerations, would now appear to be better or worse than we thought?

Does reading great books get in the way of reading other books?  If you spend all of your time on the Shakespeare of books from centuries past, will you have time to read more modern and presumably more relevant books?

Great books, to me, impact readers in such a way that one can’t help but react to it with the conclusion of “Wow.”  You should recognize it when you see it.  No one should have to waffle, guess, or debate too deeply whether a book is great.  It should be obvious.  You enjoy the book while reading it, you talk about it to others, you think about it years after reading it, and you feel better for having read it.  The book challenges but teaches, it informs but entertains, it inspires but enlightens.  It makes us feel, forces us to think, and makes us better for having read it.

But we experience a book in the context of our lives, of our experiences with books, and within the context of the times we live in.  Books like 1984, Catch-22, Gulliver’s Travels, and Lord of the Flies leave such an impression on us, decades after reading them, because we can see the layers of truth they told us about politics, humanity, and ourselves.  When we can look back and still feel a magnetic attraction to such books we know we have stumbled upon greatness.

Still, I wonder how many great books never got discovered or received the critical acclaim they deserved.  How many, due to poor sales distribution, publishers’ mistakes, or a misreading about the marketplace were squashed or dismissed prematurely?

We can’t play the guessing game of what if.  For those with great ideas but who never wrote a book, we must treat them as if they never existed.  For those who wrote books, but didn’t publish them or didn’t pursue publication, it’s as if the books were never written.  For those published but who failed to promote their book or simply failed to breakthrough and win over the readers of their day, we have to move on and recognize that some books may have been too advanced for their time.  In many cases, almost all, the book in question was at best very good but simply did not rise to the elite level of great.

Great means great -- better than 99.5% of all that is known to be out there.  We have a foundation of books deemed great, based on whatever standards existed years ago, based on gatekeepers at universities, the news media, and companies like B&N and Spark Notes.  Now we must build on that list and keep it alive.

There’s more greatness to be discovered and to be absorbed by readers.  We may not all agree on what’s great, but we should keep trying to define greatness and to be on the lookout for books that meet such criteria.  There’s something being published this year that should rival any of the great books of the past.  Find it, share it, read it.  Then wait 20-30 years and see how you feel about it.  Maybe it’ll warrant its own Spark Notes.

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2015

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