I saw a posting in a forum this afternoon asking that question--"what's the best book you've ever read?"
As always when presented with questions that are at once subjective and categorical, I became paralyzed by questions and clarifications. It was an interesting question that got me thinking, but it wasn't one I could answer with the name of a book.
The roots of my inability to answer might lie in my internal dichotomy; when I was a teenager and the most important place in my life was a little wooden desk with a blue plastic Smith-Corona typewriter on it, the walls above that desk were adorned with two black and white posters: Rick Springfield and Ernest Hemingway.
But it might be more complicated than that, too. It might simply be that "best" means something different in one moment, in one context, in one shade of light, than it does in another. What is it that makes those books stand out in our minds as "best" and stay there for years to come? I don't know. But as writers, if we can figure it out, it can only help.
The first book I can remember really falling in love with was Willard Motley's Knock on Any Door. I think that I was thirteen or fourteen when I read it, which might explain a lot--teenage girls do seem to have a penchant for good-hearted bad boys. But maybe there was more to it than that: the book was set in Chicago, the hometown of my heart; it highlighted the way the criminal justice system often does more harm than good, a topic near and dear to my heart long before I became a criminal defense attorney; maybe the character development was very strong--Nick Romano certainly seemed a flesh-and-blood person to me then, though I haven't read the book in many years.
But then, if you asked me for my favorite book, I'd probably say The Sun Also Rises without even stopping to think. The stark, unemotional revelation of some of the hard realities of human nature couldn't be more different from the tender-hearted expression of Knock on Any Door. Hemingway made me nod sagely; Motley made me reach out unconsciously and plead with Nick not to take the next step.
Were either of them the best book I ever read? I think, at least at one time, that I'd have awarded that designation to A Severe Mercy. A Severe Mercy is the only book I can recall having sent me on a truly obsessive quest for all of the author's previous works--I even tracked down Sheldon Vanauken's master's thesis! But when someone asks for the best book I've ever read, I think there's a bit of a request for a recommendation in there, a recommendation that isn't entirely subjective, and Vanauken's best-known book is a biographical account of his conversion to Christianity and the death of his young wife, interspersed with correspondence between the author and C.S. Lewis. Not for everyone, I suspect. Which also keeps me from giving the title to The Life You Save May be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage. It was a huge hardcover book, but I carried it with me on the train, anyway. I balanced it on the edge of the sink and read it while I brushed my teeth. It seemed endless and ended too quickly. It was the most artful blending of tangentially-related stories I have ever seen anywhere in literature, fiction or non-fiction. But it's a mingled biography of Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and Walker Percy. Again, not necessarily targeting a broad market.
So what about some normal books, hm?
I'm in love with Jacquelyn Mitchard. I want to be her when I grow up, but it's a problem, because I'm already 41. Jacquelyn mitchard writes books that fit into the category I'd usually call "throwaway novels"--and I don't mean that in a bad sense. I've been known to write one or two of those myself. They're simply books that we probably aren't going to buy in hardcover and keep forever on the shelf in the den. They're a good read and then you move on. Except Mitchard does something a little bit special in hers, at least for me. Whenever I read one of her books, I find myself nodding at various points and saying, "Yes, that's true. That's exactly right." Sometimes it's something I've observed before, and sometimes it's a bit of a revelation. But in every book, I find myself recognizing larger truths in the actions and reactions of Mitchard's characters. I'm still not enshrining leather-bound copies of her books, but I do keep them, and sometimes I re-read them, because they're quick and easy novels full of not-so-quick-and-easy thoughts, and some of those thoughts bear revisiting.
And I see that I've neglected to mention here that C.S. Lewis is my favorite author.
I think, though, that there is a common thread. For me, it seems that what makes a book memorable is the truth it uncovers, the layer it peels away. Hemingway did that without adjectives, without emotion, with a matter-of-fact depiction. Sheldon Vanauken did it by revealing his own aversion to the truths, and carrying the reader along his own confused and reluctant path. Willard Motley did it by painting rich emotion. Jacquelyn Mitchard does it subtly, with a sentence here and an observation there, woven so tightly in to the story and the dialogue that you're free to gloss right over those truths if you want to. But for me, I think the presence of those truths is what makes a "great book". I still don't know which one is BEST.