So What’s A Good Book?

A few years ago I was cruising the B&N shelves looking for something new to take on a train ride, and I overheard a conversation among some college students that went something like this:

A. “Uh oh, here’s another one. ‘Critically acclaimed, award-winning.’”

B. “What do you mean, uh oh?”

A. “I mean that ‘critically acclaimed, award-winning’ usually means boring.”

B. “Sez you. To anyone but a knuckle-dragger, it means a good book.”

C. “What do you mean by a good book? Depressing?”

A. “It means pretentious. So you can feel smarter than everybody else because you slogged through it.”

B. “You have to work at literature, but it pays off. Like Ulysses.”

A. “What did you learn from Ulysses that you couldn’t have learned from one of Woolf’s essays, which are far shorter, and way less tedious to read?”

B. “People are still reading Ulysses a century later. That’s got to count for something.”

C. “People taking English 101. Otherwise? Not so much.”

B. “A good book is a literary book.”

C. “Listen to yourself. ‘Literary’ book. Literary means literature. That’s what a book is. As opposed to, like, a petunia. ‘Literary’ has become a synonym for stylistic showing off. It’s all about the fractals, the prose, the surface. Most of the time there’s no ‘there’ there.”

A. “Pretentious, like I said.”

C. “Put it plain and simple: a good book is something that grabs you, and you don’t want to put it down.”

A. “A good book, for me, is one you want to read again.”

B. “I’ll go with that. So who is good, if James Joyce isn’t?”

The three started throwing out names, but they couldn’t all agree on a single writer, and they moved on, still arguing.

So what makes a good book good? Some will fall back on the classics, others will say, “Who gets to decide what a classic is? Do you mean the list of dead while male writers we had to be tested on in college?”

For a long time my fallback was Pride and Prejudice, until a couple of people slung Mark Twain’s excoriation of Austen at me. To Mark Twain, Jane Austen’s entire oeuvre was negligible tosh. As for the dead white males, their pinnacle is not so steady when you read criticism like Chinua Achebe’s thoughtful essay on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which has been a staple on the Must Read Lists for sixty years if not longer.

So . . . is any general discussion of good books relevant? I have this theory I call zing. I see zing as that moment of visceral thrill (which includes physical reactions—terror, vertigo, eroticism, grief, laughter, etc), the joy of recognition, the shiver of the new, the echo of longing, sometimes the glimpse that widens the universe in a single flash, AKA gnosis. Zing can be the comfort of the familiar, the fun of shared laughter, or it can be a moment in a work that resonates so far down in one’s psyche as to cause tectonic shifts in paradigm.

Zing is often personal (Pride and Prejudice has zinged me all my life, but it left Mark Twain utterly cold all his life) but culture is made up of individuals, and sometimes books have a cultural zing. I do think that cultural zing is another name for the enduring classics, which is different from social zing—the book that is wildly popular to the extent that “everybody must read it” for a short time. Within a few years, people wonder why it was ever popular, including some of those who had enthused. Examples, Trilby over a century ago, and Love Story half a century ago.

Anyway, though we may never agree on lists of great books, I do strongly believe that talking about what makes books zing for us is fruitful: books become part of our life experience, and finding shared experience is what binds us together.

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So What’s A Good Book? — 20 Comments

  1. I do strongly believe that talking about what makes books zing for us is fruitful.

    Yes, and far more fruitful than trying to define what makes a good book in a top-down way.

    Random thoughts… I’m wondering if an analogy from another field might help. No one would try to define in general terms what a ‘nice taste’ was as if there were one particular taste to which all others aspired. Also, we generally accept that some people like Indian food while others prefer Italian without feeling the need to prove one cuisine ‘better’ than the other in general terms. Why should books and genres be more contentious?

    Also, people review restaurants the same way they review literature – but usually in terms of ‘Do they do what they do well?’ rather than ‘Why isn’t this hamburger joint selling haute cuisine?’

    People tend to get sensitive when they feel a judgement on books/food they like extends to being a judgement on them. If you like McDonalds and Dan Brown, what does that say about you as a person? It’s years since I ate at McDonalds and I’ve never read a word of Brown, but I know very well what’s being said in an accusation like that, and it has little to do with either food or literature.

    Here endeth the ramble.

  2. Yes, it’s useless to argue against something that is fundamentally part of the human experience, that is, creating hierarchies. The success of stuff like American Idol and too many awards to count make it clear that people can’t just enjoy something, it not only has to be the best, but my best has to be better than your best.

    And sometimes there is utility in such rankings: I certainly appreciated lists of best and worst when researching washing machines a while ago.

    But how to determine “best” when criteria vary so widely, including in our own minds, can be frustrating if the goal is to bludgeon everyone else into agreeing on my best. Discussing the why of choices . . . that I find valuable and enjoyable.

  3. One of the things I find fascinating about sharing favorite books is not just the variety, and the different reasons why people love certain books, but how you may discover that you share books in common with people whom you might like but didn’t expect to step so closely in tandem with, as I fumble for a metaphor.

    For example, several BVCers have done lists of ten books that made a powerful impression on them at one point or another in their lives. I hadn’t thought about such a list for a long time — there are just too many books, I tell myself — but when I read Nancy Jane Moore’s list, I was stunned to find a LOT of the same books that had influenced me, and several more on my Amazon wish/reading list that I intend to read.

    We are both single women of a certain age who write speculative fiction, but that probably covers it. Yet we would both put down books that I might have thought no one else around me would be interested in — or that the book was one of many on its topic that could have influenced folk.

    So…being able to discuss books, when we (Americans, at least) are having trouble discussing politics or religion civilly, seems important to me. And you are one of the most talented people I know, Sherwood, for opening up a book discussion on almost any sub-topic. Thank you for being such a facilitator of good conversation!

  4. Kathi: thanks for dropping by! (I do wish this would turn into a conversation, but it seems to have laid an egg. One never knows what will spark exchange)

    Re ten books, here’s my problem with that question: my list would change from day to day. That said, I still love reading others’ lists, because like you say, that’s the way to get recommendations on new books to try.

  5. There are a lot of books I enjoyed that I wouldn’t call GOOD–our friend Dan Brown’s for instance. Nothing wrong with simple entertainment! I don’t mind working at a story that’s going to make it worth my while, but I will confess to not liking most modern literature–or at least to not thinking I’ll like it after the descriptions and reviews. Lots of people think those books are GOOD. I can’t argue. I don’t like a lot of things other people do. That’s ok.

  6. This is a really difficult question to answer. I could start by saying if I can’t put a book down then it’s a really good book. But that isn’t really the case. My reading habits have changed so much since I was younger.

    For instance, I personally feel George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is the best current fantasy story being produced (albiet very slowly). Yet, I am taking my time with these books, reading them in small chunks with time for other books inbetween. I’m lucky that my reader’s mind can jump around to different series without losing my place in the story.

    Years ago I would have sat up late into the night to read as much of these books as I could in a sitting. Today there are some books that I still read that way.

    For the most part, as an aspiring writer, I read with a very different eye. I read as a reader/writer, enjoying the reading experience but also trying to pay attention to how the scene was constructed, what the author was trying to accomplish. I read at a slower pace as a result.

    When I’m asked to recommend good books I hesitate. Given the unfortunate societal stigma often attached to genre fiction, I first as the person what they’ve read to guage what recommendations I might give.

    If they don’t read genre fiction (or perhaps stick to only one kind, say myteries) it really narrows my window of what I would recommend.

    Outside of my own favorite, which would be Tolkien’s works, which I understand are not to the taste of many people these days. I’ve encountered many people who have found their way to Fantasy via Robert Jordan or Terry Goodkind who, when tackling the Lord of the Rings, just can’t get into it. Tolkien’s writing style, and plot structure, is so alien to what they’ve become accustomed to what they believe the Fantasy genre should be, they just can’t/won’t enjoy it.

    So, outside of genre, if I had to go to the classics, Of Mice and Men comes to mind. One of the few books I’ve read that just made me break down and weep (I’m a guy). And then there’s Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. This has, in my opinion, the perfect opening sentence. In just one sentence Hemingway manages to tell the reader what they are about to experience. Just amazing.

    In the end I can only saw what makes a good book to me since reading is such an individual personal experience.

    And yet, there are books that sweep up a society or imprint itself upon whole cultures. There must be something universal contained within, even in those books that just aren’t all that well written.

    So, who’s to say?

  7. Hey, Kathi, that’s interesting, that we share a “zing” (as Sherwood calls it) for the same books. We’ll have to get together sometime soon (after all, it’s just across town, if we’re willing to brave the traffic) and have a book discussion. Though I confess that my list might be different today than it was a couple of months ago — like Sherwood, my book passions change. Just yesterday I was trying to think of my favorite book to use for an online security system, and couldn’t decide on one (I went with another security question). The main reason I made the list was because I saw so many others online that were all nonfiction, and got annoyed. I’m a believer in the truth that comes from fiction.

    Sherwood, thanks particularly for the link to the Achebe essay. It really puts into perspective some things I’ve been thinking about lately, both in relation to literature and life in general. It gets at something I want to do in fiction, though I find it hard to pull off.

    Which I guess leads me back to what I think makes a great book. One thing that I value in both fiction and nonfiction is anything that makes me look at the world in a different way, or gives me an insight that I never thought of before. On that score, Mrs Dalloway blew me away, but if there’s even the slightest bit of wisdom in a Dan Brown novel, I’ll never find it because I can’t get past the execrable writing.

  8. I tried to read a Dan Brown novel. I had to stop after the first chapter because the prose was so just plain wrong that I was afraid it might damage my own, in the reverse effect of good writing.

  9. Nancy: yes, that essay is worth reading and pondering for a number of reasons.

    Deborah: my problem with Brown was not the prose that seemed wooden (I can overlook that if I really love a story in other ways) but the constant errors in historical usage, and the diminishment of complex figures into two-dimensional in order to set up his cardboard villains.

  10. Bouncing off your idea—just as “zing” could give birth to profound feelings of love or “rightness” (something than feels intangibly true) it could also make one feel hate and loathing—particularly if what made you zing didn’t fit your worldview. Or possibly the zing missed you completely.
    For me, Pride and Prejudice’s zing is a hit and miss. I understand everything when I see the movies acted out—the characters, the dialogue, the acting, comes together in focus. (Particularly Austen’s alleged sense of humor.) Yet in the book, I can’t get past the style of the age. So there’s something there, but the book’s way of communicating that “zing” isn’t getting through to me.
    Of Mice and Men—ugh. I completely loathed that book. (Of course I had to read it for English class, and I cried because I was so completely angry.) The whole situation was so unfair. I could see the end coming from the very beginning, so I hated every step of the way to making the vision come true. At this point I can’t tell if it was because the story had that ring of truth, and hated it for killing my innocence (because the message was so negative), or because it had none and I couldn’t get over its repulsive wrongness.

  11. Dorothea: yes, I was so glad when my son got past high school English, it meant I never have to read Of Mice and Men again in my life. I’d been forced through it once a decade, either as a student, teacher, or parent, for fifty years, and I hated it more each time.

    Pride and Prejudice, on the other hand, got funnier the more I got used to the period language. I didn’t really appreciate her wry, witty humor until I’d been reading steadily in eighteenth and early nineteenth century literature for a while. There are bits of Northanger Abbey which made me laugh out loud.

  12. Why is it that so many of the books chosen for high school English classes are the least interesting works by those authors? I recall being blown away by Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent when I was a teenager, but I read it on my own, not for class. In class we had The Red Pony, which I recall as boring, and Of Mice and Men, which I, like Sherwood and Dorotheia, disliked. And the English teacher wouldn’t let me use Steinbeck’s satirical novel The Short Reign of Pippin IV for a book report because it was “too advanced” for 16-year-olds.

  13. Nancy Jane: Some of that has to do with vocabulary and supposedly what concepts teens can understand. Old Man and the Sea didn’t have anything R rated in it, so that would be used rather than one of Hemingway’s more accessible novels. I liked Steinbeck’s Arthurian, which I read in junior high–I couldn’t believe it was by the same writer who turned out the dreary Mice. Adam Bede, probably Elliott’s least accessible novel, was deemed useful in its lessons, alas alas. But then, some of these books are ruined by the way they are taught. And some are more understandable when the reader has more life experience.

    The problem is that teachers do want to challenge young readers, and get them to increase their vocabulary, try other ways of thinking and ways of life. But . . . giving tests on books, or forcing kids to shoehorn themes over the books, is not the way to increase literary enjoyment, I feel.

  14. – unexpected character depth – especially in villains, religious figures, or any other “stock character.” This is essential.

    – Unexpected plot movement, but only if the author leaves clues. Usually, these clues look like neon signs to me, so I’m pleased when an author surprises me. No, not pleased. Ecstatic! I laugh and then immediately hunt down my husband (I’ll call him, if he isn’t home) so that I can bore/annoy him as I explain exactly why the book I’m reading is completely amazing.

    – Unresolved tension between characters. Absolutely essential.

  15. Jennifer: I like as few stock characters as possible in my reading.

    Tension is a nifty subject all on its own. I get really tired of a book in which it’s all tension and angst all the time. Give and take, highs and lows, comedy and sorrow, appeal to me more. But some readers do like the solid adrenaline jolt of maximum tension all the time.

    I also like a blend of danger tension and the tension of unresolved attraction.

  16. Nancy: Look on the bright side: at least this way we keep from putting a bad taste in their mouths over good books.

    Books that I read and enjoyed on my own were unreadable, sometimes for years, after I had had to do them in class.

    Sherwood: Time was that you would test a student’s reading of a book by getting a list of quotes and having to say who said it and in what context. Honest, factual memorization. C. S. Lewis lived with our new theme and all stuff about literature, and preferred the old; it was the reading that was supposed to do the good, you just tested to ensure they read it.

  17. Sherwood – I agree that there need to be highs and lows in the tension. a) the lows don’t feel low without the highs, and b) I feel like I’m being manipulated as a reader.

    I’m almost exclusively interested in sexual tension, but there have been some books where the tension between friends, or between a parent and child, made the book for me. Of course, if I get to the end of the book, and the tension was never resolved, the book will go straight into my “disappointment” pile. The exception, of course, is when the book is part of a series.

    I forgot to add humor to my list. I like things light and funny because I’m shallow that way. 😉

  18. Jennifer: well, I’m swimming in the shallow end as well, because I lose interest if a book is all angst, grimness, doom, and or tension all the time. I don’t respond well to monotone.

  19. I know I’m a little late chiming in, but this post got me thinking…

    I earned a B.A. and an M.A. in English, but I could never get myself to read Moby Dick and some of the other big-name classics. On the other hand, when I really read the Iliad and the Odyssey and Shakespeare’s plays in college, I thought, Wow, this is what all the fuss was about–this stuff is incredibly good writing/storytelling!

    I agree about the zing–what a great way to put it! Pride and Prejudice zings for me, too. (I refuse to let curmudgeonly white male American writers rob me of my joy in Austen’s wit!)

    I do find myself irked with the so-called “literary” novel in which depressed suburban adults have a really bad life experience and come out of it depressed in a whole new way. What’s the point, I ask you? Still, as an English major, I tend to feel guilty for liking happy endings, or at least, hopeful ones.

    Over the years, my favorites have shifted, but I will go to my grave deeply admiring Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. (Though I mostly read fiction, and mostly children’s books!)

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