Saturday, September 30, 2006

What are the signs of a good book?

As I thought about the answer to this question, I had to, of course, take a trip to memory lane to visit my responses to some of the books that I considered good books. Each person, of course, has a different appreciation of what to consider a “good book” (“good” being synonymous with “great”). To some it means simply that they did not regret reading the book. A book can also be good because of how believable the book's world is, of how well an author is able to immerse the reader into the characters’ worlds. For others, it is because of the book’s content and how well the author was able to explore an unfamiliar (or familiar) topic or issue. For some people, however, it has more to do with the way a book makes them feel, how well it captures an emotion or mood, or how well it creates specific moods and emotions. To another subset of people, it is a book that challenges their hearts or minds. Moreover, a good book can be such because it personally educates readers on their lives (as experienced through others) or helps them to see things in a different light. There are many reasons to explain why a book is good. Ultimately, however, I think a book is good when it achieves a multifaceted level of beauty and purpose. A good book is rarely good for just one reason. Regardless of the definition of "good," a good book educates and it challenges (or helps one to understand) one’s ideas, knowledge, and worldview.

Often times, even before we begin to put it into words that a book is good, we show signs that the book is fantastic. Regardless of the ruler one uses to measure a books' greatness, when you do find one, how do you know it and how do you respond to it?

Before I get started on my list of this-is-a-good-book symptoms, it is important to note that not all good books elicit the same symptoms. In other words, rarely can someone say, "I know a book is good because I ALWAYS…." Sometimes, the kinds of symptoms I have might correlate with the level of the book’s greatness. Sometimes, however, each of the symptoms below is graded equally, which makes sense because, if you look closely, these symptoms are similar. No two books are the same (even if they have similar content), so the symptoms will vary slightly based on factors particular to the book's identity.

Below are some of the symptoms that I present whenever I am peeping through the delicious pages of a good book. I have avoided (for the most part) putting examples of books, because I want the focus to be on the symptom and not on the particular book that I think falls into the category.

A book is good when:

1) It is "unputdownable."
-In this case, I cannot read the book fast enough. I don't want to do anything else, including sleep or answer my phone, until I have devoured every last page. The book just seems to create urgency within me, and I want to know what happens NOW.

2) I don't want to finish it.
-In this case, I find myself stalling. I read the book in bits, rereading each line, savoring its beauty. I go back to previous pages and delight myself with their words again. I reluctantly move forward with the reading, joyful that I did and yet saddened that I am getting closer to the end where there’d no longer be any mystery as to the further contents of the book. For books that I have this symptom for, it is usually the author’s style of writing (particularly the use of poetic sentences) that moves me.

3) As I am reading it, I make plans to reread it again.
-In this case, I start imagining the instances when I would want this book with me. I start figuring out which bag will be too small to contain it. Basically, I start planning what days or times in my life I'd want this book as a companion.

4) I put it down out of annoyance (directed at the book), thinking "what the heck kind of book is this?" But then I am compelled to pick it up and find out what more it has to say.
-I know I said I wasn’t going to do this, but… When I think of this symptom, the first book that comes to my mind is Love in the time of cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Imagine a man (Florentino Ariza) who on the first day of Fermina Daza's widowhood, goes to her and proclaim his "eternal fidelity and everlasting love." He had been waiting for over half a century for her husband to die, and he wasted no time in approaching her. Even more surprising is that prior to his declaration of eternal love, he had slept with countless women, both young and old. Anyway, this is one of the books whose characters I disliked, yet I couldn't help be moved by their humanity. At their worst, they were only displaying what makes them human. Kudos to Marquez for the way he handled this book.

5) After reading the last page of the book, I put it down, and I cry.
-In this case, I might also cry while reading the book. The most significant thing, however, is putting the book down, staying still, and then noticing that I am crying. For books that I have this symptom for, it is usually the case that the author has done a great job of making the book's world and the characters’ emotions and concerns so real and so believable—the characters seem like sisters or friends or people that I care deeply for. I cry because of the life that the characters had to go through and because I am aware that there are people in the world (maybe people I know) that are going through that now.

6) The book stays with me long after I read it.
- In this case, I see parts of the book in my world. As such, I can make statements like, “Oh it’s like in blah blah blah when so and so did this.”

7) I want to have my own personal copy of the book.
-I don’t own every book that I read and have read. My desire to want to own a book (either during the book selection process or after reading the book) is usually an indication that I think the book is great.
-There have been a couple of instances or so when I buy a book and it turns out not to be as good as I expected. In these instances, I am reluctant to put the book in my bookcase and have even proceeded to sell the book or give it away. Usually, these books have more than necessary amounts of graphic content. I guard against this (that is, buying a book that I don’t want) by having a thorough book selection process or by borrowing the book first, or both.

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At 3/10/06 10:34 PM, Blogger Lotus Reads said...

Ahhh, Rosemary, how well you articulate what a good book is and the value of one. Truly, your post is so beautifully expressed, I found myself nodding my head in agreement with you as I read. I especially identified with points 2,3 and 7.

Just want to add two other ways I judge how much I have loved a book: would I like to see a sequel to the book? And do I feel envious of another reader about to read this book for the first time? If the answers to those questions is a resounding yes, I know I have just read a good book!

There's this fabulous book meme going around that you might like to do; I've provided you with a link to the one I did.

At 4/10/06 12:43 AM, Blogger Susan Abraham said...

I suppose Rosemary to me, it would be one from where its atmospheric content, caused me to remember it for years on end. Either memorable entertainment, a genius language, plot development, characters or even a picture book jacket (this applicable to when I was a 4 year old) that I chose to hold close to the heart or memory, so that it would continue to speak to me in a wondrous way throughout life.

I however, never re-read a book that has touched me as I personally feel that I would taint that original flavour. But this is just the eccentric me and my own intricate little tastes.

But I love books...just love them to bits.

Here's hoping you are well & having fun. So enjoyed this post.

At 13/10/06 2:42 PM, Blogger Rosemary Esehagu said...

Hello, Lotus. I am glad you enjoyed my post. You are so right! I sometimes feel envious when someone I know reads a good book for the first time. I want to be him or her, in order to fully re-experience the beauty, mystery, and freshness of the book. Haa.

Hello, Susan. I am well, thank you. Exams are coming up again, however, so I might experience some stress soon. Like you, I would not read some books again, even if I think they are great books. Such books are usually very emotionally intense.

Have a great day, Lotus and Susan.


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