<i>Today's</i> Timeless Books ~ BitterSweetLife

Monday, October 10, 2005

Today's Timeless Books

What It Takes for a Book to Pass the Time Test

When I announced the arrival of my upcoming Master Book List several days ago, I asked for takes on the question, What makes a book "great?" Among the credentials suggested was the undeniable "time-tested" factor. A great book, a classic, is one that will stand the test of time. It will remain memorable - and not just for a few weeks, but for years, maybe decades or centuries. Maybe even millenia.

But what does it mean for a book to "stand the test of time?" What exactly is time testing, and what kind of book can run this chronological gauntlet?

The challenge here is to answer the question without saying simply that time-tested books have timeless themes. Eventually, I'll end up saying something very similar, while using different language. It's tricky to "get around" this central issue of semantics. But here goes.

Some books preserve well because they contain themes that transcend their specific and original scope. Vital aspects of the human experience are just as present today as they were in classical Greece or Rome - and so we can still read Homer and say, "Uh huh." Likewise, profound truths are just as true in downtown Kansas City as they are in "Fairyland"* (George MacDonald) or Middle Earth. The lack of our proximity to the original story or author becomes not a weakness but a strength. The altered perspective doesn't distract, but rather lets us see our own lives more freshly.

Thus a "historical biography" still famous a century later may have depicted history accurately, but it was hardly about mere history. What we discover via the time-test is that certain authors, certain books, have a resonating truth that the passage of time cannot tarnish.

Time strips off the peripheral details, buzz words, catch-phrases, cultural pressure points - and pulls a book out of its original, contextually-sensitive landscape. We may work hard to restore that original understanding, but the fact of its loss remains. Writing that still speaks after its minutia has been neutralized gets through only because of its considerable weight.

Ironically, therefore, works that pass the test of time may contain lingual idiosyncracies that we wink at because of the profound content beneath them.* By way of contrast, other works may be smoothly produced but ideologically shallow - and thus unsatisfying in terms of story. They are forgettable.

I'd suggest that to trump time, a book must contain:

  1. Profound truth, brushed at by the story's temporal language - absolute themes wrapped in specific details.
  2. Nuanced characters who convincingly reflect the implications of the story's (elusive, perhaps) central themes.
  3. A compelling plot where questions of weight hang in the balance.

And identify these elements I must, since some of my Master List entrees are still fairly "young." Call it literary forecasting. Unearthing today's timeless books is a chancy job, but someone's got to do it.

* "Fairyland." MacDonald's choice of title for his epic realm might be regarded as unfortunate today, and the fact that many are willing to overlook this for the overall resonance of his writing is an example of the kind of timelessness I'm talking about.

Like what you read? Don't forget to bookmark this post or subscribe to the feed.


R. Sherman said...

If I may, regarding your suggestions:
1. Profound truth must be central to our existence as humans, i.e. failure, consequences, search for and perhaps attaining redemption.

2. Characters must have an "everyman" quality allowing readers across the years to identify with them.

3. Compelling plots are where the reader cares about the characters and cannot determine in advance where the character will end up.

Good Post.


Ariel said...

Thanks for the thoughts, sherman. I like them...and would go so far as to endorse them heartily. You clarify some intended meanings that I didn't actually say and wish I had. :)

Very helpful, and spoken like a seasoned reader.


Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife