September 15, 2008
The Best Books Have Four Hs
This summer I got particularly pretentious on my personal blog as I rolled out the “four Hs of the best books.” I hereby digest the series in a slightly less pretentious form here for you. You’re welcome.
The series began with me showing appreciation for Thomas Merton's No Man Is an Island, while also reading a book that might best be described as propaganda--a digest of several people's arguments against a predictable set of contrarian beliefs, presented with a high level of authoritarian conceit and adversarial derision. Both books were provocative, but only one struck me as particularly conducive to constructive conversation and fruitful meditation. That's the Merton book; I'm not going to name the other one.
So H number one is this: The best books are hard to read. By "hard" I don't mean unintelligible; I mean that they leave us unsettled, uncomfortable, moved in such a way that we feel a need to lay them open in front of other people and say, "What must I do with this?" The best books don't send us to our friends to wag our fingers at them but to ask them to read with us, guide us, pray for us.
But there's a vulnerability to conceit on the part of readers and writers of books that are hard to read. So the best books aren't merely hard to read; the best books are also humble (H number two).
Although book-writing still has some of its mystique, in reality if I—some random guy from the suburbs—can get two books published, then really anyone can. Ah, democracy. But with some 200,000 titles in English being published every year, no book can reasonably claim to have the final word. So the best books recognize that the hard things they have to say represent only one voice in a much, much larger conversation, and that the conversation is ongoing, and that the things they say will, in the best world, ultimately be supplanted by better words and better thoughts.
At this point I’d committed myself to four Hs, but I conveniently forgot one of them. Fortunately the H I remembered was thus particularly appropriate: the best books are humorous.
I don't mean that the best books are joke books. In my humble opinion, most joke books are hard to read simply because they are (a) horrible and (b) not funny. Rather, the best books carry within their writing a sense of humor that is born out of the author's humility and extrapolated out into something more universally true. The stories these writers tell aren't necessarily fantastical absurdist escapism, although some of them may well be. But they are funny, because we recognize in them a bit of ourselves, a bit of our parents or our children, a bit of our most favorite and least favorite people. We don't cease to be human in the wake of tragedy or loss or otherwise difficult circumstances; we continue to feel the range of emotions common to the human condition—which includes humor, because even when we're sad some things will strike us as simply laughable. So although the best books are not merely humorous, I'd argue that a humorless book--whether a novel or a book of poems or a book of nonfiction or a book of holy scriptures--is not telling the reader the whole truth.
The fourth and final H emerges out of the first three: The best books are human. That may go without saying in the minds of many, but I'm not talking about the humanness of the author; I'm talking about the humanness of the content.
The best books regard the human condition in a way that causes us to regard the human condition differently. Animal Farm is a human book despite the near-total absence of humans; Charlotte's Web is a human book despite the primacy of the nonhuman characters. The best books don't pummel us with the author's dogmatic assertions of what is really real; the best books crawl into our laps and ring true for us, and then we close them and revisit the human race from a fresh, even more human perspective. In that respect the best books are not only serving their readers, they're serving the communities inhabited by their readers, and in the best-case scenario, they change a generation.
So there you have it: the best books have four Hs in them. Now go write some.