Working in the library, staff are always getting asked to recommend “a good book” for borrowers to read. My question is what makes up a good book?
Reading tastes are as individual as finger prints and as complex as DNA. One person might like a particular genre but only read some of the books that fall within that particular genre where as another person might be open to reading the full range. Some of us like a certain author but are selective on which titles we like where as others will happily devour all books written by that particular author. Many of us like fiction but won’t read non fiction and just as many prefer non fiction but won’t touch fiction. Then there’s the elusive and complicated “faction”: Fictional books based on real life events or facts. Philippa Gregory is just one example of an author who fits into this genre.
So, a good book. While reading preferences may be varied, there are a few common elements:
- The plot. Is it believable? Is it a journey that flows and progresses throughout the book? Can it be related to? Does it leave you wanting more?
- The characters. Are they real? Can they be related to? Do they have flaws and depth to them? Even the characters that we love to hate, we love to hate them because they seem real. Whether we like to admit it or not, the best characters are the ones that we form an emotional attachment to. We mourn them when they die, we get angry when they do something that we don’t like and we rejoice when something good happens to them. Yes, even the characters that get under our skin and annoy us fit into the profile of a good character.
- Is it predictable? While predictability is sometimes good, you don’t want to be able to pick every little twist and turn of the plot. That makes it boring. It’s ok to occasionally be able to pat yourself on the back and think “I knew that was going to happen” but you also need to be able to think “I never would have thought that would happen”.
- Does the outside match the in? There’s nothing worse than picking up a book, looking at the cover and reading it only to find that the cover has nothing to do with the story. They say never judge a book by its cover but first impressions count. I mean, how many of us have picked up a book because the cover looks interesting? Or bypassed a book because the cover really doesn’t interest you? I know I certainly have. (In fact, I often do this with 2 women’s magazines, if I want to buy a magazine, I’ll look at the covers of 2 similar magazines and buy based off which cover looks more fun).
- Writing style. The writing style can make or break a book, particularly if the style doesn’t suit the story line. Who wants to read a murder mystery if it’s written in flowery language that makes you think that you’re reading Pride and Prejudice? Similarly, Pride and Prej would be awful if it was written with very little description of the trials and tribulations suffered by the characters. And a sci fi novel wouldn’t be sci fi without the jargon that goes with that genre.
Basically, what it comes down to in the end is that a good book contains all of the above, but the most important thing is that it’s enjoyable to the reader. And what you enjoy reading may not be what I enjoy reading (vampire fiction anyone?). My advice for next time you come to the library looking for a good book? Start by telling the staff member what books or authors you’ve enjoyed reading in the past or would like to read. Otherwise you may find yourself being shown one of the Trueblood vampire novels (which may not be exactly what you’re after).