I am not an overtly outgoing person. As Darcy in Pride and Prejudice said, “I lack that talent which some possess of conversing easily to strangers.” However, I no longer use this fact to justify being a hermit. In that sense, I feel the full force of Elizabeth’s response to Darcy: “I do not play this instrument so well as I should wish to, but I always assumed that was my own fault, as I would not take the trouble of practicing.”1
And so it was that a cold December afternoon found me on a walk with a new friend from school. During one lag in conversation, I posed one of my favorite questions: “What would you say are your top 3 favorite books?” Most of the time, the ice-breaker works immensely well; I get a glimpse into the sort of person I am talking to with very little inconvenience to myself. However, on this particular occasion, the strategy backfired: I was asked to clarify what I meant by a “good book.” The question had never occurred to me. At first, the answer seemed simple. I can identify “good books” in a heartbeat: Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Hugo’s Les Miserables, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. But articulating a clear definition of “a good book” proved much more difficult.
If by “good” I simply mean a book that I happen to like—a book that satisfies my particular fancy—then I am really not saying much at all. I could tell you “That’s good vanilla ice cream,” but I have told you nothing about the ice cream that you did not already know. So if I am trying to qualify a book by calling it “good,” it is only natural to ask me to clarify what on earth I mean by “good.”
For Aristotle, the good depends on the end of the thing in question. A knife is made to cut, and a good knife is one that cuts well. So it appears that a good book must be one that does well whatever it is that books do. So then the question becomes: what is the function or end of a book? I must here narrow my focus. By “books” I am not talking about my Organic Chemistry textbook, whose end is to teach me organic chemistry. I am not talking about books whose primary function is to convey information. Rather, I am referring to fiction: the book as an art form.
One may be tempted to say that the end of fiction is entertainment. But is entertainment or amusement a primary end, or is it but a part—a consequence—of the journey through a book? I may enjoy exercise, but surely the chief end of exercise is not my enjoyment. Most people enjoy the ocean, but surely no one would be so egotistical as to say the ocean’s chief end is for people to take pleasure in it. In the same way, the idea that fiction’s end is to entertain confuses its end with the natural fact that entertainment accompanies a good reading experience. Entertainment is not the main value of reading any more than it is the main value of the ocean. And since value relates to an object’s end (the value of a knife is to cut), the question remains: what is the chief end of fiction? What does fiction accomplish that nonfiction cannot?
In Plato’s The Republic, Socrates stresses the importance of telling tales (Greek mythos) to children. He tells Adeimantus that there are two types of tales—true and false—and that children ought to be told the false tales first.2 While this may sound odd, most of our parents probably told or read us false tales when we were young. I grew up on Aesop’s Fables, Dr. Seuss, and The Chronicles of Narnia. Most of our parents told us about Santa Claus: a chubby man with a beard who gives us presents if we behave ourselves. Why fill young minds with these falsehoods? According to Plato, we do this because there are truths discoverable in mythos. Fiction is false in a literal sense, but contains elements that are morally and metaphysically true.
…we do this because there are truths discoverable in mythos. Fiction is false in a literal sense, but contains elements that are morally and metaphysically true.
Think of To Kill a Mockingbird. The story is not literally true; yet, Harper Lee powerfully demonstrates the horrifying nature of racial prejudice, thereby equipping us to condemn like situations in the real world. We recognize the injustice of Tom Robinson’s conviction and are repulsed. We recognize the moral courage of Atticus Finch and admire it. Thus, the novel trains us to think of the real world differently. We begin to see the real world not just as it is, but as it ought to be. To Kill a Mockingbird is a moral tale. We learn to value justice and use this standard to judge, and maybe even improve, the real world.
There was a time when I only wanted to read books of practical information. What use had I for dragons and witches? What use had I for imaginary people in imaginary places? I wanted to know how the real world works. I see now how dangerous such thinking is. The “hard” sciences (chemistry, physics) and the human sciences (history, psychology) reveal only what the world is, not what the world ought to be.
There was a time when I only wanted to read books of practical information. What use had I for dragons and witches? What use had I for imaginary people in imaginary places? I wanted to know how the real world works. I see now how dangerous such thinking is.
This basic moral intuition is all the more paramount now, as science gives us the power and capabilities to do things hitherto unimaginable. Winston Churchill presciently speaks to this in his 1932 essay, “Fifty Years Hence.” He marvels at the extraordinary knowledge and power that modern science unlocks for modern man. Yet, he simultaneously warns that, while human knowledge grows exponentially, human nature and virtue remain largely unchanged: “[Put] under sufficient stress, —starvation, terror, warlike passion, or even cold intellectual frenzy, the modern man we know so well will do the most terrible deeds, and his modern woman will back him up.”3 His message is clear: if human power continues to grow while moral reasoning stagnates, the result will be catastrophic.
Ninety years have passed since Churchill issued his warning. Recent atrocities confirm his prophetic vision: scientific capabilities, while gifting us modern medicine, have also empowered evil men to unleash undreamed-of horrors. The Holocaust. Soviet mock trials. Chemical warfare. 9/11. In one century, we’ve observed the unprecedented death of millions. Churchill argues that the solution is not to restrict scientific advancement, but to ensure that “the moral philosophy and spiritual conceptions of men and nations should hold their own amid these formidable scientific evolutions.”3
As science increases what we can do, we would do well to pause and consider what we ought to do. Of late, the phrase “Follow the science!” gets thrown around a lot. Regardless of your views on the maxim’s most recent context, it is worth noting that the only reason to “follow the science” is if it leads to a place that is morally praiseworthy. After all, science is not an end, but a means to an end, one moral or otherwise. Hitler, too, was “following the science”: his gas chambers were the most scientifically efficient way to commit mass murder. There are places science can lead that we ought not go. In order to navigate these waters, we need sound moral reasoning – exactly what good fiction cultivates. Good fiction prepares and trains us to understand the real world not only as it is, but as it ought to be. That is the end of a book. That is what a good book does well.
Hitler, too, was “following the science”: his gas chambers were the most scientifically efficient way to commit mass murder. There are places science can lead that we ought not go.
It was last December when I was first challenged to answer, “What is a good book?” I have wrestled with that question for almost a year. I have been collecting material as I come across it in my reading—both personal reading and school reading. The above is my first attempt to synthesize an answer. I do not know if I succeeded. Nonetheless, I feel I have learned so much in the attempt! I doubt my friend expected to send me on a year-long quest. That is what I love about friendships. I threw out a casual ice-breaker; she responded with a profound follow-up. Imagine if she had never challenged me on what I meant by “a good book”? Imagine if I had remained locked away, letting COVID or whatever else excuse my natural hermit-like tendencies? I would have been deprived of the most exhilarating year of adventure and discovery. Instead, I got to experience personally what Bilbo told Frodo: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”4
- “Elizabeth and Darcy at the Piano.” From Pride and Prejudice, A&E, 1995. Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMFGRTBOI9E&ab_channel=basketca2. Accessed 17 Dec. 2021.
- Plato. The Republic. Translated by Allan Bloom. Basic Books, 1991.
- Churchill, Winston. “Fifty Years Hence.” Thoughts and Adventures, edited by James W Muller et al., First American Edition ed., Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Wilmington, DE, 2009, pp. 283–295.
- Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Ballantine Books, 1965, p.82.
*The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.