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.