Friday, April 11, 2014

What Makes a Book Endure

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Why is it that countless girls love a red-head who wishes she was named Cordelia? Why do college students watch the tale of a ring that needs to be destroyed again and again and again? Why is it that each generation rediscovers with fresh wonder the marvelous feats of an English dandy who rescues men and women from the guillotine, or travel in delight with two outlaws--a Whig and a Scottish covenanter--on their run from the Campbells?

What makes a book endure? Why are the stories we love so lasting, so universally beloved and delighted in?

I've been kicking around this title idea for a long time, but I had no answer for my question. Was it seeing the Christ figures again and again in each story? Was it the love of a man for a woman, such a universal milestone on life? Or perhaps it was friendship, two people in a close bond that stick together through all difficulties. But I knew that all those elements, though they are certainly recurring in the greatest literature, didn't strike at the heart of the matter. They were just off-shoots--branches on the tree, when I wanted to get at the root.

Perhaps it was my reading The Children of Hurin that triggered the final conclusion. But when I pulled this article out today, the Lord graciously clarified it in my mind, and I discovered two specific elements that just might make up the whole answer to this question. You can fit all your favorite books into these two themes--and every classic book has them to a certain degree, whether written from a Christian perspective or not.
1. The Hand of God
And all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, But He does according to His will in the host of heaven And among the inhabitants of earth; And no one can ward off His hand
Or say to Him, ‘What hast Thou done?’
 ~Daniel 4:35

Any Christian who loves history can't go long without seeing God's hand in it. He controls everything from the rise and fall of empires to the election of city officials. It's like a giant puzzle made of up kingdoms and time where there are no missing pieces, and everything that is done has purpose and usefulness. Nothing is outside of his control.

God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: ~Acts 17:24-27

In the best of tales, you see the intrinsic concept that everyone's life and actions fit together to make sense. Take Dickens, for example--he'll throw around 30 characters at you with plots for each character, and in the end it all fits. I get so excited in the confusion of keeping track of everything, because I know that at the great revelation, I'll see the whole picture, and it will be beautifully complete.

That's what makes a story last--whether it's a ring travelling through a wonderful land on its way to final destruction or a mystery in which you have a myriad of clues that somehow all fit together to reveal the culprit. Every detail matters, the stories are rich with meaning, and in that fictional tale, the author imitates his or her Creator and the Providence that we see ruling the whole world.

2. The Journey of the Soul
One time I asked myself, "If you could boil down your writing into one reason why you write, what would it be?"

And I thought--it is because through it I explore God's working in the human soul. God breathed life into it; God redeemed it. And that is why fiction is so important to me: a thousand mirrors of ourselves, our real life, all placed into a masterful plot arc that shows us the big picture of how God entwines our souls with the lives of the dozens of people we meet for our good and His glory. I love studying characters. Emotions. Events. What makes them smile, what makes them cry. Throwing hard choices at them, and seeing what in the end they'll choose to stand by the longest and treasure the most. Watching characters meet people, and seeing who helps them and who hurts them, and why.

We like stories with struggles and triumphs that we can connect to. And perhaps that's why the most enduring tales come out of this second point. It is when we read books that trace human journeys that something in our soul reaches out in kindred fellowship with the soul of the character, and we embrace it. That is why stories are immortal. Because souls are immortal, and God's working in human lives is eternal, and each book--each enduring classic--takes the two themes of Eternal God and Finite Human and weaves them together into fellowship between Him and us.

Sometimes a soul journey can be as simple as a girl trying to accept her red hair. Sometimes it's something much more complex. But either way--it's something that we recognize.

While non-Christians don't always include both concepts, the Christian author needs both these points to make an enduring book. You can have the journey of the soul without reference to God's hand, but in the end that just leaves you with man's efforts to achieve life satisfaction. You can see the hand of God without the soul journey, but then you'll struggle to make the personal connection. But when you have both--just as God, the greatest author, has both themes in His Word--then you have the stuff that stands the test of time. Because it links us with Him, and that's what all good stories are supposed to do.

The stories that endure are when the author takes the eternal and the human, God and man, and mixes them together to enchant readers for endless generations.

Lady Bibliophile


  1. Ooo...Could you elaborate even more? :D That's really true- through writing you can explore God's working of the human soul. Different personalities, heroes and villains and their struggles- everything plays into that. I never thought of writing that way before, but your answer makes sense and I love it. :)
    And it looks like it was profitable reading The Children of Hurin after all. XD I heartily congratulate you.

    Loved this post!


    1. I liked the point you brought up as we were talking last night, that a book either must have a good plot or good characters for it to be worthwhile. You said that good plot ties in with the Hand of God point in this article, and good characters tie in with the journey of the soul point. How wonderful, too, when books can have both points together!

      I would be happy to elaborate more! If you have a specific question, I shall see if I can come up with an answer, or we can have a real-person chat about it. :D

      I think you'll enjoy Tuesday's post. ;)


  2. Replies
    1. I'm so glad! :) Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  3. That is true. These are two large things that make a book endure. This can apply to both readers and writers. Often the hand of God is noticed in stories when events are happening whether they're good or bad, and it all turns out for good. And the journey of the Soul can apply when the characters go through the events that happen, and learn to honor God more and learn from their mistakes.
    Good Post! ~The Book Reviewer(A.J.H.)

    1. Hehe, as a writer I just can't get away from thinking like one, even when I'm reading! :)

      The journey of the soul is made up of loving and hurting, breaking and healing, sins and victories--and God's Hand is what turns every single experience to good purpose. Isn't that amazing? :) The books that illustrate that are definitely keepers!


  4. This was wonderful. I couldn't agree more.
    I liked how you brought out that God is glorified by these things in stories, even when the author does not intend/realize it.
    Thank you so much!

    ~The Philologist

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it! The idea for this post was actually inspired by our discussion of one of your articles--#6 it was, I think. :) So I am indebted to you!


  5. Wow, that is a beautiful post, Schuyler, and very true. I think i have grappled with this question as well, and your thoughts echo mine though I have not been able to write/think then through so down pat and accurately. You mentioned the hand of God, and this brought to mind two or three specific characters in the Bible: Jacob, Joseph and Esther...!! For one The Children of Hurin moved me to think on the subject of the human journey of the soul... Ah, I really loved your points, Schuyler, and yes, as Carrie-Grace said, it would be lovely if you could expound on those two points as they are such important ones in a reader and writer's desire for stories. God has put that 'story' in our hearts - we are part of His!

    By the way, I read your Children of Hurin review with great pleasure though I have had no time to comment on it. I shared much of the same sentiments, and at first became very depressed but upon finishing it and rereading/meditating on it, I found much of the true powerful, if not grievous, message of the book, as you pointed it out. Lord willing I will try to comment soon on that post!

    1. I liked how you brought up the story of Esther. :) That's a story where God is never specifically mentioned, but you can clearly trace the themes of Satan seeking to destroy the Jews, and God preserving them by His grace. It takes a little digging, but it's there! Thinking over books (and re-reading them, as you say) is so important to catch all the themes and see how they apply to the Christian life.

      Yes. Turin was a very vivid portrait of the journey of the soul. :'( Poor man. I'm still sad about him.

      But that book ran deep, and even though I'm not sure I can read it again, I'm so glad I read it once.



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