I have recently completed two books that I personally would classify as "great."
Yesterday I finished reading J. R. R. Tolkien's The Return of the King. It is the last in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. This was my third time through the trilogy.
I experience a deep sense of satisfaction when I come to the end of the trilogy (and even when I'm reading it). It is so well-written. Let me see if I can convey, even if it is random and not nearly as comprehensive as such a work deserves, the factors that contribute to my appreciation of this work of art by Tolkien.
First, it is well-written. It is a better grade of grammar and syntax than much of the fluff one comes across in contemporary novels. (That's not to say there aren't some well-written contemporary novels.) If books are well-written from a grammatical perspective, that alone produces a certain joy.
Second, and this may be a bit hard for me to explain, The Lord of the Rings is an epic, but it's an epic within a whole universe and history that has been created and developed by Tolkien. By contrast, C. S. Lewis created Narnia in writing The Chronicles of Narnia. But long before Tolkien first wrote The Fellowship of the Ring (the first book in the trilogy), he had developed Middle Earth, from its creation all the way through its four ages. He had developed its histories, its various inhabitants (elves, dwarves, men, hobbits, to name a few) and their traditions and lores and habits and customs. As you read The Lord of the Rings you cannot help but get a sense that this story is just one story--a significant one, yes--but just one story pulled out of one huge history. And there is something grand and awesome about that. (It's the way we should feel who belong to the Church universal. The Church of today, we are reminded throughout the Bible, is connected with the Church of the past, and the past is huge. The Bible tries to convey some of the grandeur of the Church in various passages, such as Heb 12:22-24.)
Third, the good characters are truly noble and endowed with dignity. I think it is fashionable in entertainment today to show how bad the good guys really are, and sometimes it's difficult to discern in what ways the good guys are truly good. Tolkien doesn't make his characters perfect, but they are noble, and while they each have struggles, they are not in the end overcome. Aragorn struggles with some doubt. Frodo wishes the burden would fall to someone else. Pippin and Merry sometimes let their tongues get them into trouble. But in the end, they are noble and do what must be done even at great personal sacrifice. None of the good guys are bloodthirsty, but they recognize the need to stand up to evil, even when the odds are long, rather than pretend the evil doesn't exist. As you read you come to love Aragorn and Gandalf and Faramir and Sam and Gimli.
Fourth, there are redemptive themes throughout the story. I don't believe Tolkien intended his work to be overtly Christian; in fact, I'm pretty sure he didn't. Christian parallels are more obvious in The Chronicles of Narnia. But there are nonetheless many ultimate truths illustrated in The Lord of the Rings that the student of the Bible cannot miss. Aragorn and Gandalf, both Messiah-like figures, go through death in one way or another and come out stronger as a result. The night is darkest just before the dawn as Middle Earth passes from the Third Age into the Fourth Age. There is a sense of spiritual captivity upon all the forces of evil, a captivity to do the will of Sauron. Also, "the hands of a king are the hands of a healer." Much more could be put forth by others. (In addition to these redemptive themes are pearls of wisdom dropped from time to time throughout the trilogy; wisdom that is both true on Earth as well as Middle Earth.)
Fifth, this is a book about friendships, deep friendships. The friendship between Frodo and Sam is highly instructive for the sacrifice that Sam puts forth for his beloved Frodo. But there are others, too, such as between Legolas and Gimli (a highly unlikely friendship), Merry and Pippin (they take great joy in one another), the Fellowship and the Hobbits (though they are by comparison "inconsequential," yet the Hobbits are dearly loved and worried about), Gandalf and Frodo (this great wizard recognizes something wonderful in this brave and fearful hobbit), Bilbo and Frodo (the friendship of old and young relatives), and Eomer and Aragorn (a friendship between powerful men with deep respect for the other one's nobility and power).
Sixth, the trilogy is simply a great titanic struggle between good and evil over what the future of Middle Earth will be.
More could be said better by others in favor of this trilogy. I commend its reading to you.
Note: I like The Chronicles of Narnia. But to me it lacks the depth of The Lord of the Rings. I've only read the first book of the Eragon series (recently published). I rank that below The Chronicles of Narnia. Seems flat to me, and it lacks a pure moral vision.
Well, I'm out of time. I hope to tell you about my other satisfying read soon.