There are bestsellers and prize winners, cult classics and must-reads. All of these are worth reading, and often for different reasons. They might entertain, enlighten, move or disturb the reader, their plotting might be masterful or their characters realistic and memorable. There is usually at least one element that makes a book stand out.
But what is it that makes one truly great?
It was at the start of reading Too Much Lip recently – in which an Indigenous woman from Brisbane returns home to see her family, who live in the small where she had grown up, and becomes immersed in the struggles they face – that I realised that I was reading something that could be considered great. In Melissa Lucashenko’s award-winning novel, the protagonist was riding a motorbike, and had stopped on the side of the road. She was watching a magpie struggle with a snake and the scene Lucashenko described was mesmerising.
It was one of many points in the book in which I was surprised by her command and skill, the way she wrote something entirely new to describe a familiar scene and landscape. Lucashenko’s characterisations were utterly believable, she managed to walk a difficult cultural line and her plot was engrossing. Her turn of phrase was perfect, managing at some points to be funny and others to portray the heartbreak of a family in despair; at other times I felt the tension of a violent argument all through my body while I was reading.
As in most great books, it is apparent early on in the story that it was something special.
Similarly, I have recently started reading The Handmaid’s Tale in anticipation of Margaret Atwood’s visit to Melbourne next month. While I had heard mixed reports about the book, I wanted to read it to judge for myself. The television series might loom over Atwood’s novel, but I have been taken aback by the sharp and obvious intelligence of the book. It is hard to believe that it was written decades ago, given its relevance today. The writing is beautiful, the themes prescient and the characters sharply drawn.
In both of these vastly different books, there is not one element that stands out from any other; all are exceptional. They offer social and political commentary, realistic and unique characters, engaging plots, and gorgeous language. There is something profound or surprising on every page, if not in every paragraph.
Thinking back on other books I have read that fall into this category of greatness, some titles are clear members. The Choke by Sofie Laguna is one, as is Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. For me, Anna Funder’s All That I Am is also one of the modern greats.
Other greats are more obvious and universally renowned, like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, alongside so many other extraordinary books that hold permanent positions in bookstores’ classics sections. Then there are modern classics like Cloudstreet by Tim Winton and Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, which tell of times not long gone.
Reddit Books users had their own ideas on which modern books might be considered greats, or classics, in the future. Their nominations included Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.
In reading Too Much Lip and The Handmaid’s Tale, I was reminded of the thrill of reading one of these great novels for the first time, and the sense of confidence that the book in front of me was going to continue to surprise and impress, and ultimately, to stay with me. These books are ones which I will always refer back to, drawing on their wisdom and insights into the human condition. Great books don’t just entertain readers, but they can also change them.
In Too Much Lip, it is a particular pleasure to read a contemporary novel that should by rights become a classic. Its themes are those of our time, and as Australians, of our place. What a rare honour it is to read such a book. Great novels have the power to create change in minds, communities and societies, offering a different way of seeing the world. Australia certainly looks different to me after reading Too Much Lip.
Ultimately, good books are a gift to readers, and great ones are a revelation.