The Great Book Myth

In A Moveable Feast Ernest Hemingway describes reading The Great Gatsby for the first time and concluding that F. Scott Fitzgerald had written “a great book.” By the time I read A Moveable Feast I’d attended enough undergraduate literature classes and seen enough lists of The Hundred Greatest Novels to believe that Hemingway was merely perceiving a fact that the rest of the world soon agreed upon. Except Fitzgerald died believing The Great Gatsby was a commercial disappointment, which, to that point, it was. His best known novel did not sell as well as his earlier works, and the year he died the book sold only seven copies, five of which Fitzgerald bought to give as gifts. I do not know what unfolded in the following decades to see the book attain its current status as a regular occupant at the tippy-top of the literary canon. That evolution is as mysterious as the relationship between art and audience, and is the reason that The Great Book is a myth, a fish tale upon which millions have agreed.

The Great Book is a myth, an illusion, because it suggests that a story’s value to an individual can be measured in anything beyond his or her own unique experience of it. As it happens, I like The Great Gatsby, though it was at first difficult to discern this because I had already been told so many times exactly how good and important and nearly perfect it was. All this praise and critical genuflecting became noise that interfered with the relationship between the words on the page and that which gave those words life within me.

What is not an illusion is the experience of being moved by a story, or thrilled by a story, or amused by a story. What is not an illusion is the desire to keep reading when you should be starting dinner. What is not an illusion is what comes to life within us when we discover something we love. The Great Book will only exist in fact, in reality, the day that love can be quantified and measured and compared, the day that one life can be said to be more worth living than another.


Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion.

"A book to keep nearby whenever your writer's spirit needs feeding." Deb Caletti.

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