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What Makes a Great Book

An original concept, an enticing plot, a compelling protagonist – what are the elements that make a book meaningful? Hosted by Meredith Vieira, this program will explore the pillars of great writing by showcasing local voices and how the books of their lives have touched them in profound ways.

AIRED: September 06, 2018 | 0:26:45

What Makes a Great Book,

the companion documentary to


is made possible in part by

The Corporation for Public


a grant from Anne Ray


and by contributions to your

PBS station from

Viewers like you.

Thank you.

Hi, I'm Meredith Vieira,

host of The Great American


Think of your favorite book.

The one you just can't put


that you want to read over and

over again.

What draws you in?

Maybe it's an enticing


A riveting plot.

A character that leaps off the


Maybe it's all of those things

and more.

Join us as we ask the

question: What makes a great


What makes a great book.

Well of course many things

make a great book.

You know what makes a great

book is integrity and honesty.

Honest on the page,

clear with your intentions,

knowing what you want as an

author to just give forth to

the reader and not wavering in


That's really what makes a

book come alive when just the

use of the words can activate

your senses and kind of like

place you within the book.

What makes a great book is

when everything is serving the

story so when technique serves

the story not the story serves

the technique.

For me it's characters that

are contradictory, compelling,

and making decisions that I

either completely relate to or

couldn't possibly relate to.

It has to have a plot that is

at least something that people

can understand.

Like something that you want

to sink into.

A book is not great if you

don't want to live there.

A great book.

Well first of all it has to be


I don't want any thin books.


It has to be a heavy book.

And it has to connect with


like either something that you

want to do or something that

you want to be.

You know sometimes you can

read a book and you think,

especially nowadays people

will say well this book really

speaks to this moment.

Well that's fine, that's good.

And that book will probably be

widely read at least for the

next year or two or maybe even


But will that book be read in

50 years?

And that's often a question

that we at The New York Times

ask ourselves when we consider

sort of what makes a great


or what makes a best book of

the year.

For me what makes a great book

is when,

when it's an experience.

The reading of it, you know?

When it removes you from

what's swirling around you.

So the Chronicles of Narnia is

not only a great book,

I would say one of the best

series ever written.

When I read this series,

I felt like it was not a

children's book and I had

entered into a new world of

literature that I never wanted

to leave.

One of the things that makes a

great book is the ability to

try to imagine what it might

be like to reach readers

beyond the time frame and

beyond the geographical

location or moment that

they're writing in.

I'd have to say Invisible Man

by Ralph Ellison.

I think that's a really good


The real message behind it is

very important, you know, how,

when you're of color,

you can be invisible in some


especially because it took

place in the 40s,

in a time when that thing was

very prominent in many areas.


It was very real,

very eye opening,

made you ponder a lot of

things in life.

A great book is a book that

lots of people recognize as


Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

is a great example of this.

It's a very unconventional

book, an unusual book.

And yet as soon as it was


it reached thousands and

thousands of readers.

It became a best seller.

It was well reviewed.

Some people found it

controversial but they

recognized its talent.

It's never been out of print.

Moby Dick is a great book

simply because I think that it

captures in a lot of ways what

American culture is which is,


this arrogance of what happens

when you become so obsessed

with something that you're

willing to go down with the

ship as it were.

There's the narrative of the

whaling adventure,

and in-between each one there

are chapters on cetology on

the study of whales.

So it has both adventure and

it satisfies a lot of

intellectual curiosity.

Ahab is so obsessed with this

whale that he's willing to die

in pursuit of killing the


and it sort of in a lot of

ways begins to make me

challenge like am I really

that obsessed with anything.

Am I willing to go down with

the ship and that lets me know

what you know what's important

and what's not.

In the books that we love to

read we develop empathy.

And I think Charlotte's Web is

one of the greatest books to

look at how children develop

empathy and caring for the

world around them.

Charlotte's Web is a fantastic

book about friendship,


and also about how death is a

sad thing,

but needn't be terrifying to


There's so many books that

talk about death,

but Charlotte's Web does so in

a very gentle way,

the seasons pass,

inevitably people get older,

I won't say who in Charlotte's

Web passes away,

but let's just say - No


No spoiler,

but a major character,

and it's something which makes

my children when I've read it

to them, it makes them cry,


doesn't leave them scared.

It's heartbreaking without

being frightening,

I think that's in a sense one

of the best lessons we can

have about the death of

somebody close to us.

I guess if you're thinking

about the, the,

the components,

the ingredients for a great

book, you need plot,

you need character,

and you need style - you need

a little pizzazz.

And I think that really if you

take any great book that you

love it has to have at least

two out of the three.

If it's got plot and character

and style,

then you know you're in the

hands of someone who really

knows what they're doing.

A great book is really one

that makes you feel like you

know the people in it.

Not that you recognize them,

not that they're familiar,

but that you feel personally

connected to them and they

come alive for you,

maybe even more alive than

people you actually know.

For the great American Read

there's a book on the list

that I really love,

'The Curious Incident of the

Dog in the Nighttime,

' is fabulous,

it gives you an inside look of

what it's like to be an

autistic person.

We've all read about autism

and the autism scale,

but actually getting inside

the mind.

This will not be a funny book.

I cannot tell jokes because I

do not understand them.

Here is a joke, as an example.

It is one of Father's.

His face was drawn but the

curtains were real.

That book is very interesting

because there's these tiny

little like diagrams

throughout the book.

And I always thought that was

interesting when authors can

do something like that to kind

of like place you in the mind

of the character and how

they're thinking.

I think that's a really great

technique that authors use as


Structure is structure.

Stories have a beginning they

have a middle they have an


Some stuff happens in between,

there's some cause and effect,

at the end you know they win,

they lose, they draw,

whatever, it's like sports.

But if I'm gonna use that

example like sports,

great stories are about the

people that are doing them.

You take the Godfather for


one of things that makes the

Godfather so compelling is you

have a character that is been

raised in the mafia.

You have a character who is

surrounded by things that none

of us are really that much

surrounded by.

And yet all of his decisions

seem like ones that we could

see ourselves making.

He chooses to go off and fight

for the war instead of being

in the family business.

Well most of us are not making

that type a decision.

But we do understand what it's

like to rebel from our parents

in some way.

I've grown up with Harry since

I was 11.

I felt like the entire time I

was reading it that the

characters were like my

closest companions.

So they've pretty much,

the characters have been my

best friend since childhood.

My favorite character in Harry

Potter is Professor


She's a strong woman.

She takes control she knows

what she wants she knows what

to do.

She's such a great leader and

I love that.

Dumbledore's quote about

"Happiness can be found even

in the darkest of times,

if only one remembers to turn

on the light."

And I think I stick with that

probably every day,

because there's so many

terrible things that happen,

and if you just remember one

positive thing,

you're gonna be in a better

place than you were


Jane Austen's characters feel

very contemporary to us even

though she wrote them 200

years ago.

People tend to compare people

they know to Jane Austen


Jane Austen fans get together

and say oh my god my boss is

such a lady Catherine I don't

know how I'm going to keep

working for her,

or you know my mother in law

is such a Mary Musgrove,

I can't stand her whining and

we all know exactly what we're

talking about.

I mean that immediately

summons to you what that

person is like.

With Alice in Wonderland you

get these crazy characters.

I was reading Alice in

Wonderland to my five year old

the other day and he was just

laughing hysterically because

it's so crazy.

And the names are so much fun.

Tweedledum and Tweedledee

Agreed to have a battle!

For Tweedledum and Tweedledee

Had spoiled his nice new


Just then flew down a

monstrous crow,

As black as a tar-barrel!

Which frightened both the

heroes so,

They quite forgot their


In Catch 22 by Joseph Heller,

one of the great things that

he did was he had great names

for his characters,

and you know that sounds like

such a minor point.


but writers really think about

the names of their characters.

And so again hungry Joe,

you remember that,

you remember Yossarian and you

remember these names.

And he created characters that

people could relate to,

people could kind of envision

them in their minds.

And that, that stays.

What makes a great book is,

you totally feel yourself

connected to the characters.

When it's over your sad,

you wonder what happens to

them afterwards and you're

like oh my gosh I wonder what

they are doing right now.

You still are connected to the

characters and everything they

go through emotionally so do


Once you get to feeling for

that character and you're

excited as to where that

character's going,

even if it's not a happy


It's a great book.

A good plot makes you want to

keep turning the pages.

Like you don't want to check

what time it is.

And when you do look at the

time it's like hours later and

you're like,

'Wait what just' - and you're

not even upset about it.

Like and you still want to

read more.

Plot is a series of

interconnected events that

impact the creation of a story

and the unfolding of a story

about which characters have to

make decisions.

I think the process of

developing a storyline for

authors it varies.

I think the beginning of that

process always begins with

having a solid origin story

and also working into the

space of complete


At the beginning of every

single creative process,

no matter how much of a master

you are,

no matter how much of an

amateur you are,

you are about to step into a

situation in which you do not

know the outcome.

There is nothing that the

consciousness hates more than

a situation where it does not

know the outcome,

and so instantly this deep

evolutionary alarm system goes

off saying we are about to


And that's just natural.

And all it means is that you

have skin in the game that

you're trying to do something

that you don't know how to do.

And that's inevitable,

and you just have to sort of

embrace it and soothe it and

comfort it and go along with

it anyway.

Good writing is born and

sincere writing is born when

writers give themselves the

space to explore in this kind

of painstakingly slow and

desultory and almost reckless


I start with an idea,

or theme,

or character and I don't like

to know anything about the

book at all.

I like to just really make it

up as I go along.

And I find that a really

exciting way to work.


I wouldn't start if I didn't

feel that the idea I had was

something that I could

maintain over four or five

hundred pages or whatever.


That it could go somewhere.


that it was something


But I just prefer to let it

all unravel on the page before


When you start,

you have you have an


Some people call it an

exposition where the

characters are introduced,

the action starts,

you sort of get an idea of

what the story is going to be

about and then the action

begins to rise until it gets

to a climactic point and

you're going, "Ah,

here we are,

here we are." And then it


And then there's,

a lot of people call that

point the denouement,

and then the action starts to

fall and you have some kind of


So a wonderful book that

really focuses on plot is a

Tree Grows in Brooklyn by

Betty Smith.

It has this time traveling

quality where suddenly you're

in the nineteen hundreds.

And I love that quality.

Like anytime a story can pull

you in and take you to a whole

another century,

it's like the perfect book.

A book I thoroughly enjoyed

was Diana Gabaldon's Outlander


I don't know if you've ever

read it but it has time

travel, it has Scotland.

It has Jamie Frasier.

It's beautifully written,

well researched,

and did I mention that it has

men in kilts?

One of my favorite things is

the flipping of the damsel in

distress trope.

It's not very often that like

a six-foot whatever muscle

bound guy is the damsel and

the woman actually is the one

that gets to save the day.

I thought well I should have a

female character to play

against all these guys.

One of them drew himself up

and he said my name's Dougal

McKenzie and who might you be?

And without my stopping to


I just typed 'my name is

Claire Elizabeth Beecham and

who the hell are you?'

I said you don't sound at all

like an 18th century person.

So I fought with her for

several pages trying to beat

her into shape and make her

talk like an 18th century


She wasn't having any.

She just kept making smart

modern remarks and she also

took over and began telling

the story herself.

I said OK I'm not going to

fight with you all the way

through this book.

Go ahead and be modern,

I'll figure out how you got

there later.

So it's all her fault that

there is time travel in these


It's that,

those books that like have you

under the covers at night with

like a flashlight you know

reading that just draw you in

like that at the end of every

single page.

There's something that makes

you say like I need to know!

50 Shades of Grey is a really

great example.

It really starts off the

ground running.

Anastasia's roommate gets


She's supposed to do this big

interview with Christian Grey

who's sort of this,

sort of a master of the


And that meeting,

that first meeting really sets

the tone for the whole book.

And you kind of,

whether you like it or not,

it is a pretty fast ride right

from there.

I appreciate people with much

more twisty turny plots,

you know, Agatha Christie,

Stephen King I know are on the


You know people who are true

experts at plot.

I think what makes a great

plot is having something

that's relative to you.


that you can feel yourself in

that person's shoes a little


or at least understand where

they're coming from.

The Catcher In The Rye.

From middle school.

I still think about that book.

The raw emotion of it and the

power had on the young me.

If you really want to hear

about it,

the first thing you'll

probably want to know is where

I was born,

and what my lousy childhood

was like,

and how my parents were

occupied and all before they

had me,

and all that David Copperfield

kind of crap,

but I don't feel like going

into it,

if you want to know the truth.

You know that's,

that's the point of a plot is

to - it's not to have

everything happen and to throw

things in a,

in a character's path,

but just to make sure that

whatever does happen that the

reader actually cares by the

end of it.

In my opinion,

style in literature is how an

author uses words to his best


When you write in a style

where people can pick up the

book, get a lot out of it,

and not be intimidated by the


I think that's where the power

really is.

So I think you know the ways

in which you craft your

language and the ways in which

we all ought to be thinking of

crafting our language, um,

does more of a service when we

say we want everybody to be

able to touch this book and

get something from it.

Writing style is where people

find a way to express their

worldview in words.

You can have a beautiful style

but it won't feel like a great

style unless it gives you a

sense of a person behind it

who couldn't express

themselves any other way.

When the metaphor is perfect.

Or an analogy that just works

for the set.

And they come upon you


they're the ones where you put

the little tags in the books,

to mark that one to come back


Written language is a

particularly strong medium for

telling stories in part

because it's so intimate.

That's when you,

you can't help but fold down

the page or you know break out

a pen or you know sort of take

notes and or,

or go back up a paragraph and

say Oh god wait I need,

I need that,

I need that again.

What is the magic of writing

good, natural speech?


firstly it's re-writing it

over and over and over.

And it's reading it aloud.


I think not enough

readers-writers will read

their work aloud,

and you have to do that.

Whether it's dialogue or


you have to-you will hear the

rhythm of the language,

you'll hear if you're

repeating words,

you'll hear if it sounds


You think about great stories

and it's not always the most

beautiful most poetic words

that we end up remembering for


It's often words that are

characters revealing

themselves in a moment and

that means something it is


A book that has meant the most

to me is Zora Neale Hurston's

Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Mostly I loved it because the

language in the book reflected

the language I was hearing in

the streets.

It made me feel like language

could be limitless and

articulated the way I wanted

it to be.

Ships at a distance have every

man's wish on board...

It's beautiful.

It's beautiful already.

For some they come in with the


For others they sail forever

on the horizon never out of

sight never landing until the

watcher turns his eyes away in


His dreams mocked to death by


That is the life of men.

The strength of words is that

they sort of expand within us

as we read them and we also

take them in or take them on

to try them on.

And that changes our

consciousness and that's very


You literally think things you

couldn't have thunk before.

In to Kill a Mockingbird,

through Scout's eyes we learn

that the world is not what we

think it is.

It's this way.

And she does that through


But it's also through style.

Because style is the choice of


the cadence of the sentence,

how she rearranges it and of

course it's what does she

leave out.

What has she put in.

What is she telling us.

As the author that she wants

us to know at this very


Steinbeck for me is like salt

of the earth.

Blue collar.

Honest trade.

People who are living close to

the edge.

There's no place to hide,

they're in the environment,

and they're tradespeople


um and so there are often

political themes and moral

themes which I think they're

rich, right?

And I think Steinbeck had a

way of approaching which was

light and enjoyable but then

at the same time like so rich,


I would say the Coldest Winter

Ever by Sister Souljah is a

perfect book that resonates

style in just energy.

The whole book is going

through this young woman's

life as she's like changing

and quite honestly it's a

coming of age story.

And I love the style of her

writing and just the grit of


That's like my,

that's like the word that

comes to mind is it's like a

gritty real novel and her

voice I think is actually like

not acknowledged as much,

and more people need to know

about her work.

Jane Austen is considered a

master or mistress of style.

And the first line of her

novel Pride and Prejudice is a

great illustration of why her

style is so beloved.

It goes like this.

It is a truth universally

acknowledged that a single man

in possession of a good

fortune must be in want of a


There's a lot we could say

about that sentence,

which is one of the things

that makes Jane Austen a great


Her language, though simple,

is rich.

But the two features of her

style that show up the most in

the first sentence of pride

and prejudice are: Classical

balance on the one hand and a

sly sarcastic sense of humor

and fun on the other.

You know it almost doesn't

matter if the story holds up

or if it hangs together as a

whole so much as that it's

beautifully written or that it

does something interesting or

new with language.

And I think that's probably

more of a writerly concern

than a reader's concern,

but that's something that,

that many people consider to

be fundamental to what makes a

great book.

We take for granted the fact

that when you watch any sports

game, there's people talking,

giving you constant language

of what's happening.


Did You see that 360 dunk!


And it's like wait,

that was what that was?

Oh OK.

There's not that much for

literature that works in that

way like this sort of


this fun language that you go.


did you see the simile he did

on page seventy five?

You're like,

what that was simile?

Oh I didn't see that.

I didn't even know it what

simile was!

And it's like,

being able to create that sort

of fun around it.

I think it will make people

like, want to read more,

it's like oh this is for me as

a reader,

not just for me as a writer.

Reading is Knowledge.

It is one of the most

important things in one's


Reading to me is inspiration.

I think reading is such a

powerful way for you to kinda

be pulled into a story.

And it's amazing how just,

the right visual,

the right sequence of words

can empower you to really go

out and chase your dreams.

The best thing about reading

for me has been what is

allowed for me in the way of


in transporting from a place

that is not my own.

It has allowed new ways for me

to see the world,

hear the world,

and write the world.

Talk to us about the

importance of reading to

developing the skill of


I can't imagine how you could

do it any other way.

You familiarize yourself in

that field and then you want

to play in that field.

It feels like you live there,

that it's your home address.

I really think that reading

increases people's capacity

for empathy.

I think that getting to

experience other people's

lives whether it's fiction or

nonfiction is really

quintessential to the human

experience and just learning

more about yourself by doing

so as well.

I've always been someone that

reads because I'm curious and

I want to understand.

And I believe that the more we

can understand our own world

in relation to others,

the better we can, um,

be members in it.


It brings all this new

information to a person and

allows them to see different

perspectives and take a

different look on the world

and make better choices.

Reading is obviously it's very

important to me because I

think it expands your world

and takes you to a place

beyond your own little city or


It just takes you to different

places and you get to travel

far away and see things in a

different perspective.

You can't know anything

without reading unless you are


Which is not really knowing.

So reading is a necessity.

I need it like I need air.

Reading is really such an

amazing part of my life.

I literally never go anywhere

without a book.

You may be sitting in a cafe

with a book and people can

probably figure out pretty

quickly what you like.

I think people read for very

different reasons,

some people read to challenge


some people read because they

want to be comforted.

Some people read to relax,

other people read to learn

something new.

And I think the reasons why we

read of course then will

affect what we get out of the


whether we like it or not,

whether it delivers on that


Books Are.

I think everybody's first


When you don't know how to

express yourself.

You can find that book that

makes you feel great,

you can identify with.

And I feel like it's a magical

world for everyone.

Finishing a great book makes

you feel accomplished,


and it's very liberating.

At the end of reading a really

great book there's almost this

like emptiness that you feel

it's like a like a book

hangover kind of like you just

like you don't want to read

anything else for a little bit

because you just want to sit

inside of that experience that

you just felt with that book.

Every book is different,

I think.

For some books it's the


for another book it might be a

fast moving plot.

And for another book it may be

that setting that captures

everyone's imagination and

makes us long to be there.

I think it all just depends on

the book, what,

what makes a book a great


Great books can have a

profound impact on our lives,

and stay with us for years

after we turn the last page.

And aren't we lucky that they


I'm Meredith Vieira.

Thanks for watching.

What Makes a Great Book,

the companion documentary to


was made possible in part by

The Corporation for Public


a grant from Anne Ray


and by contributions to your

PBS station from Viewers like


Thank you.


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