Observations from my weekly wanderings, usually in Northern Virginia (NOVA).
I’ve been thinking about greatness. Specifically I’ve been thinking about how we overuse the word “great”.
Admittedly it is a subjective term, and therefore open to differing opinions. So, the following is merely Wanderer’s commentary.
In an article titled Waiting for the Next Secretariat, author Laura Hillenbrand wrote:
True Greatness is extremely rare…
Bingo – that’s a perfect description.
The article, written way back in 2001 attempted to explain the long wait for a Triple Crown winner. At the time it had been 23 years since Affirmed won The Kentucky Derby, The Preakness Stakes, the Belmont Stakes and hence, the Triple Crown.
Horse racing fans had been spoiled in the 70s with three Triple Crown winners: Secretariat in 73, Seattle Slew in 77, and Affirmed in 78, and then the long, long dearth.
We were impatient back in 2001, and fully desperate by 2015. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that this past summer American Pharoah finally ended the dry spell. Last weekend, he added an exclamation mark to end his racing career by winning the Breeder’s Cup Classic.
That is greatness.
There were 36 Kentucky Derby winners, 36 Preakness winners, and 36 Belmont winners between Affirmed and American Pharoah. Those horses (they’re colts actually, and the occasional filly), were very good. A handful won two of the three races; those were extremely good. But as Ms. Hillenbrand says…True Greatness is extremely rare.
If there was a Triple Crown winner every three or four years, it wouldn’t be very rare. It wouldn’t be great.
Believe it or not, this NOVA is not about horse racing, though that is a passion of mine. I’m circling around to a bookish thought. It’s about overuse of the word “great”. I think this overuse is prevalent in sports writing and broadcasting, but I think it’s overused in general.
Take my quest for example: To read the 100 Greatest Novels of All Time. Who says they’re great, how do I know if any one novel, or the combined collection is great? Are they rare?
To be honest, I think most, if not all, the books on my list are rare achievements. They’ve stood the tests of time, critical review, and popular acclaim. There are Pulitzer Prize winners, Nobel Prize winners, and a few Academy Award winners (for the film of course, but I give most of the credit to the novelist).
In my opinion the books on my list are great, but they doesn’t mean I will like them all. You’ve probably read every one of my reviews and know that I haven’t liked every novel. If I dislike a novel it doesn’t mean it isn’t great, and if a novel is considered great it’s no guarantee I will like it.
When I first started this blog I felt a little bad, a little unqualified to judge the likes of Joyce, Hemingway, or Dickens. Who am I to judge these great writers? But my reviews are not really judgements, just my own particular opinion. I owe no apology for disliking Ulysses, and Joyce owes me no apology for his work.
It may be obvious, but my ratings are not judgements of a books unequivocal greatness, but rather how great the book was for me. I was questioned by a fellow book blogger about my personal threshold for greatness. A good question, dare I say a great question. I had to think about my answer. It came to this: excellence of craft and evocative creation, if you will pardon the bit alliteration. Craft being technical skill with words, creation being ability with those words to evoke strong emotion or exalted thought, or better yet both.
If a writer does that – makes me feel and makes me think – that’s Great Literature.
Note: Laura Hillenbrand the author of the article I cited earlier is the author of Seabiscuit: An American Legend (2001 William Hill Sports Book of the Year), basis for the 2003 Academy Award nominated film Seabiscuit. She is also author of Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (2010), basis for the 2014 film Unbroken.