What Makes a Book Special?

Earlier this week I was challenged by a friend on Facebook to write a list of ten books that I considered my favourite, or that had impacted/affected me in some way in the past. It was one of these nomination things and it was a bit of fun, but it got me wondering about what actually makes a book special for me or for anyone. Not all of the books on my list were ‘classics’ – books that are more widely recognised as being of a certain quality or have come to be recognised as such over time – and some of them won’t have been heard of by a lot of people, but they mean something to me. Before I go any further, here’s the list:

John’s gospel (changed from the Bible as it was pointed out that that’s a bit of a cop out)
The Road – Cormac McCarthy
All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy
The Sword of Shannara – Terry Brooks
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
Eager – Helen Fox
Zero (from the Circle series) – Ted Dekker
Matterhorn – Karl Marlantes
Counterfeit Gods – Timothy Keller
Myths and Legends of Greece and Rome – H A Guerber

I like to think there’s a bit of a mix there, so I’ll briefly explain the thought behind each one. As an insight into Jesus’ life and the theological ramifications, the book of John is, in my mind, unparalleled.I think that, more than any other book in the Bible, it has helped me to understand my faith.

All the Pretty Horses and The Road were chosen because I adore McCarthy’s writing style and both those books undeniably moved me when I read them for the first time.

The Sword of Shannara is the book responsible for getting me out of teen fiction and into adult books, and the Shannara series remains my favourite in the fantasy genre.

I read The Picture of Dorian Gray for the first time at university last year and fell in love with Wilde’s wit and the sheer artistry of his writing. It was without a doubt my favourite book I studied last year.

Eager is a book I read as a child with my dad and it remains a favourite. It’s about a lovable Artificial Intelligence robot who is ‘eager’ to learn about the world around him as he adapts to a futuristic (refreshingly non-apocalyptic) vision of human society.

I put Zero in the list, but really any of the four books from Ted Dekker’s Circle series could have been in there. Dekker is a Christian novelists who writes books that not only explore issues of faith, but provide gripping stories. This books is metaphorical/fantasy in style (similar in some ways to the Narnia books) and I love it as a vivid reworking of the Christian story.

Matterhorn is probably the biggest book on the list, and one of the hardest hitting. It’s a fictionalisation of Marlantes’ own first hand experiences in the Vietnam war and my word did this book blow my mind when I read it. I don’t normally read war fiction, but I did not regret this one, and did part of my A level coursework on why it should be considered canonical in literature!

Tim Keller’s books Counterfeit Gods is the only ‘Christian life/theology’ type book on the list and it makes the cut because it profoundly shifted my thinking on the way I view worship and idols. If you’re interested, this is a fantastic book for describing how that element of Christianity is relevant today, and it helped me and challenged me a great deal on the subject.

Finally, I chose Guerber’s Myths and Legends of Greece and Rome because I have a great love of ancient mythology and this was the book that started it. It’s not the best book I’ve read on the subject, but for me it was the most important, as when I was about 10, this book opened the doors of Classical Mythology, now one of my favourite topics, up to me.

So there’s the justification for them. The reasons for finding them special are varied. Some are just very well written and are clearly high quality, others just have great stories, and some have had more of a shaping influence on who I am and what I believe. I guess the thing that’s clear is that it’s impossible to pin down exactly what makes a book special for someone.

Some would say the literary canon attempts this, but insofar as anything exists, it’s really just a representation of what certain people have thought is a good book throughout history. I don’t enjoy all the books that would be considered canon, but I do enjoy a lot of books that will never be considered canon. It’s not really about that when it comes down to an individual level.

It is hard to write about this because it’s impossible to generalise. I suppose the books that mean the most to you will be the ones that in some way shape your life. Even with those that I put down as simply good stories, they have opened my eyes to the stories that could be out there and to ways of telling stories that I haven’t even considered (Ted Dekker and Cormac McCarthy in particular). Some books, like Eager for me, become meaningful because of the memories they make.

And I want to finish by saying that even if I can’t pinpoint what makes books special for people, the amazing thing is that they can be that special at all. A world without books would be a bad place in my opinion, because there is so much joy and meaning to be found within them. I guess this is one of the reasons I do English: to see why people have loved books for so many years. It really is amazing what’s out there.

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