The Joy of Reading Great Writing

“I Like Books . . . Books Are Good” ~ Yours Truly

The above has become my personal mantra and I have probably used it several times on posts throughout this blog.  It is only partially true though.  I do like books (no question there) but really I feel that a more appropriate mantra for me would be “I like reading . . . reading is good.”  While I am without a doubt a huge fan of books, both fiction and non-fiction, I am all around just a lover of written words.  Magazines, newspapers, blog posts, hell even random signs and poster, all of these and the words that appear on them fill me with delight.  Yesterday I received the July issue of Esquire and spent about two hours just lying on my bed reading almost every article.  I don’t know which article it was exactly, because there was a number of very good ones in the magazine, but somewhere between the front and back cover I paused in my reading for a second and just pondered on how much I love great writing.  It seems almost silly to think this way.  Of course one should love great writing for how else would it be great unless it were loved?  I will refute this though.  Just because writing is loved does that make it great.  Of course this is a very subjective matter really and it is easy to argue both sides, but I have my stance and intend on holding my ground.

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was a hugely successful novel and I think I am safe in saying that it was loved (or at least greatly enjoyed) by a lot of people.  The Da Vinci Code is not a piece of great writing. Period.  I don’t care if you liked it.  I don’t care if you thought that it was the greatest book you have ever read.  The Da Vinci Code is poorly written.  Now of course this is subjective and I’m sure there are plenty of people who would like to argue with me about this.  That is fine, everyone is entitled to their own opinions (as long as they are okay with the fact that their opinions are wrong because The Da Vinci Code really is pretty much the biggest piece of crap ever written).  The thing is that their are a lot of books, or pieces of writing, that people enjoy, but that does not make them great pieces of writing in my opinion.  Perhaps they are great economically.  Perhaps they are good for the moment in which they exist.  but to me great writing is those words that work together so well they are bound to last.  Shakespeare is great writing.  Don Quixote is great writing.  The Declaration of Independence is great writing.  The Da Vinci Code and Goosebumps novels and tabloid newspapers however are not great writing (they may be successful, which to some may be synonymous with greatness, but ultimately I will stand by my saying that they do not represent great writing).

I spent my four years in college studying English (more specifically writing) and I have come to think that in studying the language and about writing and what has been written I have come to have at least a somewhat reasonable understanding of what constitutes great writing.  I think I knew that great writing existed before going to college but I do not think that I really appreciated the greatness until I began my college studies.  If I had to choose the first book that I think I knew to be greatly written I think it would have to be J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  Prior to The Hobbit I had enjoyed reading quite a bit but I had not really been captivated by the power of it.  Then in fifth grade my father recommended Tolkien’s book to me and my world was changed.  Never before had I encountered not just such a captivating story, but actual words put together with such precision and beauty.  The Hobbit is great writing.  I don’t know how many times I have reread the story since fifth grade (the answer is a lot) but still every time I pick it up I am amazed with it.  This is my opinion on great writing.  Not only does it convey the meaning of the writing to the reader (which is essentially what all writing should do) but it surpasses that, the writing itself is something more than just the message it presents. 

I remember being in college and one day just thinking how I could really tell when something was greatly written.  I could not put my finger right on a definite aspect of the writing, especially because so many writers write so differently, but I knew.  From then on I could pick up a book or article or something else to read and be able to tell if it was well written or not.  While I had many books I liked in high school I could not do this yet.  I think it had something to do with being an English major.  When you get down to it, regardless of whether you are focusing on literature or teaching or writing, as an English major one is truly studying great writing.  The student focusing on literature is learning about which authors are great and trying determine what is great about them (or in some cases what is absolute crap, such as The Kite Runner, which was loathed by almost everybody in the class in which I read it — justly so because the book sucks). The student focusing on teaching is learning how to teach others about great writing.  And the student focusing on writing is obviously learning, or trying to learn, how to write greatly themselves.  So I believe a big part of my understanding of great writing comes from my background education.  I think that if everybody was reasonably educated in literature and reading and writing, then books and writing like that in say The Da Vinci Code and The Kite Runner would not have as much of a chance to succeed.  But alas not everybody is as educated in such things and that is not always a bad thing (sometimes I feel it is an unfortunate thing, but oh well).

I was an English major with the focus on writing specifically and by my above logic that means I should have spent my four years in college learning about how to write greatly.  I stand by that.  That is a lot of what my education was focused on.  Of course you cannot just tell someone or show someone how to write greatly, just as you cannot just tell/show someone how to paint a masterpiece.  It does not work that way.  In focusing on writing I think the student learns to become more aware of what works and what does not work in his/her writing.  A big part in my learning about writing was in my learning how to take criticism and make it useful in my own efforts.  So here is the question: do I think of myself as a great writer now?

I am humble and so I cannot call my writing great writing.  There are just too many things which I have read which are of such superior quality than my own personal writing that it is hardly worth comparing.  But with that being said I don’t consider myself an altogether bad writer either.  I like to think that I understand at least a little something about making words work and writing them well.  Will I ever be the next Hemingway of Dostoevsky?  Probably not (though I have not ruled it out yet either).  I consider myself capable of writing with proficiency which is better than many people (Dan Brown included).

I read a lot these days (in truth I read a lot and have read a lot most of the days of my life) and often what I read is okay but maybe nothing great.  If it is a horrible piece of writing I am usually quick to realize it and discontinue my reading.  And then there are the great pieces of writing that I find.  Some months back I picked up Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, this was a great piece of writing.  Some days at work as I skim through my RSS feeds or the online editions of newspapers I encounter greatly written articles and will take my time to read them through twice or thrice just for the pleasure of the words.  Some days I will go onto Wikisource and just browse through some Shakespeare or Poe and marvel at the mastery of the writing that has allowed their works to last so long.  For me reading is a great pleasure, but reading that great writing makes the pleasure so much more. 

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~ by Nathaniel on June 24, 2008.

5 Responses to “The Joy of Reading Great Writing”

  1. “For me reading is a great pleasure, but reading that great writing makes the pleasure so much more. ”

    I agree. Good post, by the way.

  2. Having said that, I agree that financial success is not synonymous with greatness. Take any Michael Bay movie for example.

  3. It’s safe to say that great writing has layers of meaning and depth. Even if you can’t articulate it, you can sense it. This is the mark of a craftsman. When you can look at something created by another and sense an attention to detail and a mastery of the medium. You’re looking at the culmination of innumerable hours of honed genius manifested in a single piece of work.

    As for The Da Vinci Code. I enjoyed it as it made an 11-hour car ride breeze by. Masterful? No, not really. It’s a mystery thriller. I don’t know many of those that crack into the “classic” category. Though the originality of Dan Brown has been questioned, the premise is compelling and fun. I would contend that if written by someone with more care and a more nuanced style, it could have been less ridiculous and probably a lot better. But, at the same time, it probably wouldn’t have been a best seller either. There was a trade-off. Dan Brown isn’t trying to write books that will be taught in classrooms 100 years from now. I think Dan Brown knows his audience, knows his genre, and created something that was perfect for both.

  4. I agree with your comments about Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code Evan. It had a compelling enough story to entertain a lot of people in a particular audience and it did that well. Also (and this can be said about a lot of books that I do not consider great pieces of writing) at least it got people to read, which I think of as being very important. All that being said I still think the book is a piece of crap and that Dan Brown is a pretty shitty writer. But then again I am a bit of a book snob and willing to admit it. If you like a book then don’t let anybody tell you you are wrong (because you are not wrong in choosing to like something) especially a book snob like myself.

  5. […] I just finished reading Sara Gruen’s circus novel, Water for Elephants.  In consideration of my post on great writing yesterday I have to say the Ms. Gruen’s novel does not make the cut in its writing quality […]

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