We all love a good book – a book that makes us think, laugh, cry, wonder, marvel, a book whose characters or ideas or images remain with us long after we have finished it.
There are plenty of critics to tell us whether any particular book is good or bad. But look up the reviews for a book panned by the literati and dozens of people will say they loved it, because what’s good to you isn’t necessarily the same as what’s good to me. So, isn’t ‘good’ in the eye, or mind, or heart of the beholder?
Are the classics good? Undoubtedly, and yet so many of us struggle to get through them. They may be great literature, and they have brought joy to many, but I’ve lost count of the people who admit that they couldn’t actually finish Tolstoy, or Dickens, or Trollope.
A couple of years back a man named Pavlos came over from Egypt to work with me on a memoir of his father, who had, in his day, been a distinguished international endocrinologist. However, when we sat down together to begin going through his memories of his father, Pavlos, himself in his seventies, couldn’t remember much. In fact, after half an hour of peering at a scrap of paper on which he’d written a few notes, he declared himself done.
What to do?
We started again and over several days began to stitch together moments, memories, thoughts, colours, scenes – anything and everything that Pavlos could recall from his childhood and his father’s extraordinary life in Cairo.
Eventually what we had was a short book of vignettes; little passages, just a page or two long in some cases, each of which captured, in no particular order, an aspect of his father – his humour, his dedication, his fussiness about meals, his camping trips in the desert with 12-year-old Pavlos, his dash in the middle of the night to treat a prince and his kindness to patients who could only pay him in chickens and honey.
I had been afraid that Pavlos might be disappointed, as the book was so short, but I need not have worried. This book was, for him, the best book in the world. He added in old black and white photographs of his father and when it was complete he was so excited about it that he went to the printer on the Isle of Wight to watch it roll off the presses.
Once he had the copies, he gave them to his children and grandchildren and to everyone who had ever known his father as well as to the libraries and medical schools across the world that his father had worked in or visited.
This was, in the end, a very good book. For Pavlos it was the best of books and, after he sent it out, he received many warm messages from people who had known and loved his father. The book was itself an act of love, and what can be better than that?
For me it confirmed what I already suspected – if you love a book, it’s a good book. And since every book is loved by someone, it follows then that all books are good!
Of course they are, because books are wondrous things.