If I were to make a list of all the qualities that make a book truly great, the most important would be that the text were able to MOVE ME. To tears. Of grief or joy or confusion, it doesn't matter. What matters is that the words and sentences strung together at some point become so personal that I can't not be altered for them.
Unlike almost everyone I know who has read it - including other blogger-reviewers - I didn't actually like Nicole Krauss' The History of Love. However, it was truly great book. The surprising depth with which we come to know her characters - a lonely, 80+ year old WWII refugee, a young teenager obsessed with disaster survival skills, a child who too-enthusiastically seeks God as a replacement for the father who died too young - some main characters, some with supporting roles, all so finely crafted you'd think the book was 500 pages. It wasn't. So touching was the description of a first awkward kiss between lovers that I felt like I was intruding horribly on the moment.
While I do not regret for a second the time I spent reading the novel, I had little patience for the Yiddish and Spanish references that were more than sprinkled throughout the English text without explanation. The structure didn't always make sense, some characters never quite fit in, and the way the story switched back and forth between narrators and past and present tenses left me cold. But perhaps that was intentional. At the heart of the novel is a book by the same name with the following passage on page 107:
"Just as there was a first instant when someone rubbed two sticks together to make a spark, there was a first time joy was felt, and a first time for sadness. For a while, new feelings were being invented all the time. Desire was born early, as was regret. When stubbornness was felt for the first time, it started a chain reaction, creating the feeling of resentment on the one hand, and alienation and loneliness on the other...It is also true that sometimes people felt things and because there was no word for them, they went unmentioned. The oldest emotion in the world may be that of being moved; but to describe it - just to name it - must have been like trying to catch something invisible. (Then again, the oldest feeling in the world might simply have been confusion.) Having begun to feel, people's desire to feel grew. They wanted to feel more, feel deeper, despite how much it sometimes hurt."
A book within a book is not a new literary invention, but this one was accomplished particularly well. There is a distinct difference between the writing style of the book's writer, and the writing style of the novel's writer - though ironically the same person. That takes talent - and guts - to attempt such a thing and for that I support Nicole Krauss as a writer in her own right, not just as a collaboration with her famous husband, as some have speculated. Read A History of Love and be moved once. Read it again as I plan to and discover the rest.