I was pontificating on another blog today about the NYT list of the Best Books Since Reagan's Election when I found myself thinking an old question: why do we remember books at all?
Quick answer: character.
I've never read Toni Morrison's "Beloved," but maybe that's the reason it scored so high and other conventionally better or more artistic novels didn't. Does anyone remember the characters of Don DeLillo's "Underworld"? (Were there any? Can't recall. After the last page, the book flew out of my head.)
Take books as diverse as "Lolita" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" or "Catch-22" or "Slaughterhouse Five" or "The Grapes of Wrath" -- you can debate the vast literary differences between them all day; what unifies them is that no one who reads them is ever likely to forget Delores, Humbert, Scout, Jem, Boo, Yossarian, Billy Pilgrim or Tom Joad.
Part of the reason this is on my mind is that I'm about to finish "Anna Karenina," and you can't help but realize while reading it why she's one of the great characters of literature: she's alive and distinct in ways other bored aristocratic beauties simply aren't. People who return to the book a second time may be surprised to recall how boring it is in parts, with all those lumpy sections devoted to democratic reform and agriculture, but Anna never lets you go. Same goes for "Madame Bovary" -- you'll forget the brilliant style and sense of the book before you'll forget the central character.