Certain books I return to again and again, and each time I find something compelling, something that makes me want to keep reading, although I know exactly how the story unfolds. They capture something timeless, provoking thought long after they’ve been returned to the shelf. Novels by Tolkien and Lewis reside on that list, of course, along with some of MacDonald’s works and those of other classic writers like Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, and LM Montgomery. It’s not only the classics, though. Some of today’s authors also craft works of sufficient depth to provide lingering impact–Jeffrey Overstreet, to name one.
In a discussion of the art of story and craft worthy of re-reading, CS Lewis proposed that “we do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust has been given its sop and laid to sleep are we at leisure to savor the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness.”
If the “real beauties” Lewis referred to are absent, once the intrigue and surface excitement of racing through the story have gone, all memory of it will quickly leave the mind. I can enjoy these books to an extent, but they never become favorites.
So what makes a story great and infuses it with true beauty? A massive tome could be written to answer that question alone. Yet if a book demands more than one reading, if it impresses itself so deeply on the heart and mind that months and years later, recalling the story brings back strong emotions and sensations, it begins to take on a timeless quality. A great book goes beyond the mechanisms of plot and character (though these must be of good quality) to provide something the reader connects with on a deeper level, creating an emotional investment. In part, this takes place when the story captures and reflects a greater reality or desire common in the human experience.
There’s a thrill at discovering such a tale, and I imagine most writers aspire to write something of this quality. So why are there so few timeless stories? More on that Friday.
I know there’s more to what makes a book great than what I’ve discussed here–so I’d love to hear from you. From your perspective, what makes a story timeless? What books have captured your imagination and held it over the years?
Image credit: Gauis Caecilius