Originally Posted on June 3, 2012
As I look ahead at a week where I have purposely planned down time in order to prepare for the American Cancer Society Relay For Life of Fluvanna, I’m also looking at my bookshelves. I know I’ll be picking up The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco, and I have The War of Art by Steven Pressfield sitting on standby, too. Plus, you gave me a great list of books last week when I asked for intellectually challenging reads. But as usual, my real challenge is not having options; it’s choosing which of the options I’ll actually pick up. So as I was pondering this question, looking forward to stack of books I will choose and then only read half of (anyone else do that?), I got to thinking about what makes something a good book to me, and I came up with five elements:
1. Characters That Feel Real I don’t care if it’s fiction or nonfiction; if the characters seem too perfect or too one-sided (too “flat” to use the writing teacher term), I get bored or annoyed very quickly. I love characters who are flawed and who make mistakes, and I also love characters who seem to mostly get it wrong but also get it right in just brilliant, profound, sparkly ways. (That’s one of the reasons I love good young adult fantasies – because despite the fantastical world, I can relate to the characters.)
2. Beautiful Language I adore sentences that move like water, trickling through and around or rushing over and easing off the edges. I also adore sentences that sound authentic, as if the character or narrator really said them (and hopefully, the writer actually did – there’s so much to be gained from reading our work out loud.) I love the opening lines of Lolita for their consonance and lulling sound, but I also love how James Baldwin’s words get all choppy and sharp when he speaks of anger.
3. Complex Relationships In a piece of writing, if two characters show some complexity in their relationship, I’m hooked. I’ve never had a relationship where everything was easy, so when I see that played out on the page, I watch closely, partially to see I”m not alone in this experience and partially to get some tips on how to do better in my own friendships. In nonfiction, if a writer can do this, I find it masterful – see Anne Lamott, who manages to show us the complexities of her relationships without having to give us much beyond her own thinking about them.
4. A Good Sense of Time One of the things that’s most difficult for me in some writing, particularly by newer writers, is that it loses a sense of time. I don’t know how much time has passed between actions, or I’m not sure what time period the story is set in. Maybe it’s just that I”m typically hyper-aware of time, but when I don’t know where in a day or year I am, I get frustrated. Good example – The Lord of the Rings; we always know how long Frodo and the boys have been on the road.
5. Honesty For me, all good writing comes down to this – is the writer willing to be honest? This is one of the reasons I love Denis Johnson and Kathleen Norris. It’s why I adore Thomas Merton and so appreciate Chaim Potok. They are able to be honest on the page, even if their characters are not. In fiction, this honesty is complex because it may mean creating a dishonest character but signalling to the reader that the character isn’t trustworthy (a la The Great Gatsby). In nonfiction, my favorite moments are when the narrator admits something we don’t usually speak to anyone but, perhaps, our closest friends. I find there’s a great strength and freedom in those moments.
So there they are – the five things I love best in books. I don’t know that this has really helped me narrow down my list for next week very much, so why not just expand the list? Have any books that possess some or all of these qualities? Any qualities you’d add?