I have a cousin who is hopelessly addicted to Tab (I know, I know, who drinks Tab these days? Well, she does). She drinks at least four cans a day. Once my dad and I gave her a taste test. We presented her with three glasses and asked her to identify which was Coke, Pepsi, and Tab. Unbeknownst to her, we presented two glasses of Coke and one of Pepsi. After insisting that glass two was the Tab, she was shocked to learn that her “Tab” was actually Coke. She’d been drinking Tab her whole life. How could this mistake be possible?
Have you ever been to a wine tasting and felt hopelessly unsure which bottle costs $10 and which costs $100? Don’t worry, it’s a rhetoric question so no need to embarrass yourself by answering. I won’t tell you my answer either. Sometimes excellence isn’t immediately obvious. When I surprisingly came across Tab in the grocery store recently (I know, I know, who still sells Tab these days?), I wondered if the taste test could be applied to literature.
In the questions in the short quiz below, I present three quotes from different novels. Can you tell me which option comes from a timeless literary giant, rather than a current writer? Don’t worry, I won’t pull the Tab quiz trick on you.
1) a. “We sit silently and watch the world around us. This has taken a lifetime to learn. It seems only the old are able to sit next to one another and not say anything and still feel content. The young, brash and impatient, must always break the silence. It is a waste, for silence is pure. Silence is holy. It draws people together because only those who are comfortable with each other can sit without speaking. This is the great paradox.”
b. “He sighed profoundly, and flung himself—there was a passion in his movements which deserves the word—on the earth at the foot of the oak tree. He loved, beneath all this summer transiency, to feel the earth’s spine beneath him; for such he took the hard root of the oak tree to be; or, for image followed image, it was the back of a great horse that he was riding, or the deck of a tumbling ship—it was anything indeed, so long as it was hard, for he felt the need of something which he could attach his floating heart to; the heart that tugged at his side; the heart that seemed filled with spiced and amorous gales every evening about this time when he walked out.”
c. “‘Before you, [name], my life was like a moonless night. very dark, but there were stars—points of light and reason… And then you shot across my sky like a meteor. Suddenly everything was on fire; there was brilliancy, there was beauty. when you were gone, when the meteor had fallen over the horizon, everything went black. Nothing had changed, but my eyes were blinded by the light. I couldn’t see the stars anymore. And there was no more reason for anything.’”
2) a. “To be confronted with such pity, and such earnest youth and beauty, was far more trying to the accused than to be confronted with all the crowd. Standing, as it were, apart with her on the edge of his grave, not all the staring curiosity that looked on, could, for the moment, nerve him to remain quite still. His hurried right hand parceled out the herbs before him into imaginary beds of flowers in a garden; and his efforts to control and steady his breathing shook the lips from which the colour rushed to his heart. The buzz of the great flies was loud again.”
b. “More and more I find myself at a loss for words and didn’t want to hear other people talking either. Their conversations seemed false and empty. I preferred to look at the sea, which said nothing and never made you feel alone.”
c. “In our twenties, when there is still so much time ahead of us, time that seems ample for a hundred indecisions, for a hundred visions and revisions—we draw a card, and we must decide right then and there whether to keep that card and discard the next, or discard the first card and keep the second. And before we know it, the deck has been played out and the decisions we have just made will shape our lives for decades to come.”
3) a. “She still felt shell-shocked by all of it, numb. Beneath the numbness, though, was a raw and terrible anger that was unlike anything she’d felt before. She had so little experience with genuine anger that it scared her. She actually worried that if she started screaming, she’d never stop.”
b. “But sometimes, maybe most times, it isn’t that clear. It is dark and you are near the edge of a cliff, but you’re moving slowly, not sure which direction you’re heading in. Your steps are tentative but they are still blind in the night. You don’t realize how close you are to the edge, how the soft earth could give away, how you could just slip a bit and suddenly plunge into the dark.”
c. "For the first moment he thought he was going mad. A dreadful chill came over him; but the chill was from the fever that had begun long before in his sleep. Now he was suddenly taken with violent shivering, so that his teeth chattered and all his limbs were shaking. He opened the door and began listening, everything in the house was asleep. With amazement he gazed at himself and everything in the room around him, wondering how he could have come in the night before without fastening the door, and have flung himself on the sofa without undressing, without even taking his hat off. It had fallen off and was lying on the floor near his pillow."
1) a. Nicholas Sparks / The Notebook
b. Virginia Woolf / Orlando
c. Stephenie Meyer / Twilight
2) a. Charles Dickens / A Tale of Two Cities
b. Paula McLain / The Paris Wife
c. Amor Towles / Rules of Civility
3) a. Kristin Hannah / Firefly Lane
b. Harlan Coben / Hold Tight
c. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
Don’t worry I found this quiz less than obvious too. The point is, up close there isn’t always an obvious difference between good and great. Sometimes we can only see greatness in retrospect. The question is, which of these current writers will people still be reading in a hundred years?