Wednesday, 4 November 2009

What makes a good book?

Today was our writers' group meeting. The subject was "What makes a good book?" What an odd subject some of us thought (well, OK I thought) but we had a really interesting morning. Only a few had chosen to write but each one was different and we had a really good discussion.

Here is my piece:-

The trouble with adjectives is that their meaning is so subjective. "Being a good girl" when you are a child really means conforming (and all the best brains tried not to conform). Every mother has a beautiful baby in her eyes, whereas you might look into the pram and think - what an odd looking little thing. So there is going to be trouble with this word "good." So let's re-write the question and ask "What makes a good book - for me?"

Now the really important word in the question is "me". Is there anyone reading this who has not had the following experience? A friend, relative, colleague, acquaintance, radio programme, someone standing next to you in the library queue holds up a book and says "this book is really, really good - I so enjoyed it." You take the book home looking forward to curling up in your favourite armchair by the log fire, with your chosen tipple in a glass by your side, a box of choccies to hand - you open the book and by the time you get to page 2 you are beginning to have your doubts. By the time you get to page 6 your dream evening has gone "pouf". You need that tipple to drown your disappointment.

So let's be perfectly clear - this is what makes a good book for ME. Don't take any of the following to heart - you are not me (Thank God for that do I hear you say?), your taste will not be my taste - and what a good job that is so, otherwise there would be huge library queues for some books while others would moulder on the shelves.

I am not a lover of too much dialogue. Everyone raved about the Harry Potter books, so I tried to read one. After ten pages of solid dialogue I knew these books were not for me. I like descriptive writing - about nature, about travel, about scenery, about people (as long as they don't do a lot of talking).

Of course I have read the classics, Shakespeare, Trollope, Dickens, Jane Austen - some of them I loved and they are on my list of good books; others I found hard going and have no desire to read again. That they are great works of literature cannot be denied, but that does not make me want to curl up in their company.

So let me list a few books which I call really good books - for me. I have read E M Forster's A Passage to India many times and never tire of it. The great Russian writers - Turgenev, Tolstoy, Pasternak - I love them. Of present day writers I would say that Sebastian Faulks's

Birdsong is, for me, one of the best books of the twentieth century. On the other hand, if I am tired or unwell and need something which does not tax me too much, I am happy to settle for Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables - all tried and trusted favourites.

What do these books have in common? Each of them tells a story with a beginning, a middle and an end (not necessarily in that order), and each is memorable enough for me to be able to recall it sometimes years after I first read it.

Some writers are able to do that for me, some aren't. Anita Brookner always stuns me with her well-written style; Hilary Mantel makes me come back for more; Salley Vickers "Miss Garnett's Angel" sits in my head like a much loved recurring dream.

I have just finished reading Adam Thorpe's "The Rules of Perspective" (Thorpe was recommended by Dave (pics and poems) so thanks Dave- there is one recommendation which was a success). Not an easy read, a harrowing subject (the fall of a German city at the end of the Second World War) - I read it one evening and when I got to bed I couldn't stop thinking about it and wanted to get up to continue reading it - now there is a really gripping book.

Now I am reading Katherine Swift's "The Morville House" about the making of a Shropshire garden. Fascinating stuff. This is a really good book. What makes it good - well I suppose it is good because I think it is so. Would you like to borrow it? Pour out a glass of your favourite tipple and curl up by a log fire with it. Don't overdo the chocolate. You will not be disappointed.

Or will you?

Sorry about the quality of the photograph - it is a pouring wet day here and I can't find anywhere to take the photograph where the flash doesn't spoil it. But you get the idea.


Bonnie, Original Art Studio said...

Love your analysis of what makes a good book. It is such a subjective thing. I, too, adored 'Birdsong' and some of his (Faulk's) earlier books. However, his most recent 'Human Traces', did not grab me as much.

Based on your description of what you like, I would recommend 'There is a Season: A Memoir in a Garden' for its descriptive prose. Patrick Lane is the author.
In fact, just mentionning it makes me want to give it another read.

I have been reading Anne of Green Gables to my nine year old grandaughter. What a joy. My English cousin (living in Vancouver near us at the time) used to read it to me, with her lilting accent, while we were nestled in big ferns in the forest. Chinks of sunlight kept us warm and it is one of my favourite memories.

Thanks for evoking so much in me with your post today!

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Oh, I could splash around in book talk all day long! Wonderful post. I am happy to hear you like Hilary Mantel. I've not read her work, but have ordered Wolf Hall from my library after reading a review that sounded irresistible.

For comfort reading, I always return to Gerald Durrell's, My Family and Other Animals. I love that one.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Oh, I could splash around in book talk all day long! Wonderful post. I am happy to hear you like Hilary Mantel. I've not read her work, but have ordered Wolf Hall from my library after reading a review that sounded irresistible.

For comfort reading, I always return to Gerald Durrell's, My Family and Other Animals. I love that one.

willow said...

What an entertaining post, Weaver. I like how you delve into the subjectivity of a "good" book.

And to answer your question, we call regular cream "half and half". A bit of whole milk would work well, or I'm sure it would be completely fine with just a splash more broth. This recipe is very forgiving.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

I agree that the only definition of a "good" book is highly subjective, absolutely a personal call. There are plenty of what I'd call "serious, lifelong readers" who think a work the majority considers world-class literature is not worth the paper it is printed on as reading material. For them, of course. And who's to say they aren't right? Good literary works and good books aren't necessarily the same thing. Just as popular books and good books also aren't interchangeable definitions. A book can endure for ages and not be something you'd want to curl up with on a cold winter's night.

I do think, however, there's another aspect to a "good" (subjective definition) book, and that is when it is read—or what you might say what we, the reader, bring to the table. More than once I've started and restarted a book I thought I would enjoy, only to find it tough or impossible to get into…and yet a year or decade later, gobbled up it voraciously at one or two sittings. And afterwards thought it belonged on my all-time-favorites shelf. So I think our mood plays a part.

For me, a good book is one I can read again and again and again. A book whose magic never fails.

Elise said...

such a great post - thank you !

Heather said...

A good book is such an individual thing as you say. I loved Wind in the Willows but didn't appreciate Alice in Wonderland until Bernard Cribbins read it on Jackanory and I listened with our youngest daughter and loved it. At present I can't cope with anything dark or harrowing, but used to lap up war memoirs when I was younger. I have always conformed I'm afraid - perhaps that says it all!! I have left a comment for you on my blog about how I am making my book. Hope it is helpful. Maybe I should have left it here, but it got a bit lengthy.

Poet in Residence said...

For me a good book is first of all a book that I can't put down. It must be written in a style I feel comfortable with, generally this means a not too simplistic nor a not too complicated style. There's nothing worse, in my opinion, than reading a book and immediately thinking: well, I could write better than that. Or on the other hand there's nothing worse than reading a book and having to reach for the dictionary every five minutes. So writing style, for me is extremely important. I can't be doing with too much convolution either. And so I enjoy writers like Hemingway, Capote, Steinbeck, Melville nut am not too keen on pretentious writers like Nabokov. His Bend Sinister left me cold.
But anyway, Weaver, I'm glad you wrote your post because it's a long time since I read a good book cover to cover (been too much caught up with poetry) that I'm now going to follow your advice and curl up in my favourite chair with a "good book". Many thanks!

jinksy said...

You certainly put your finger on the main thing about a 'good' book - enjoyment of the reader. The 'bad' ones, which rank lowest in my estimation, are those I want so desperately to edit, because of poor language skills, that other aspects of their contents fade into oblivion!

Titus said...

Fascinating question, wonderful essay on "an answer", but in the end I only ever know once I've finished it. Sometimes you pick up a book about which everything seems "right" for you (highly subjective, as you say) and you start it and ... it's not good at all.
Then you can pick up something that's not your "preferred" area, and be blown away by it.

So what makes a good book for me is that it's always just around the corner ...

mansuetude said...

birdsong and Wind in the Willows, i will take right now! Have been thinking of that book this month... the wind evokes it.

Elizabeth said...

As you know, I read almost anything (greedy you might say). Anyway, I was reading the Persephone catalogue this morning (Christmas is coming. Family take notice!!!)
They were discussing the attractions of my latest favorite Dorothy Whipple
I quote
"Yet analysing Dorothy Whipple’s appeal is tricky. She is not, of course, a ‘great’ writer. You could not take one of her sentences, as you can with, say, Mollie Panter-Downes, and hold it up to the light. But she is serviceable, perceptive and humane. Also, she has that great gift of talking directly to the reader and we cannot put the book down until she has finished with us. This is the most frequent comment we get in the shop. ‘I could not put it down,’ people say over and over again about Someone at a Distance (particularly), They Knew Mr Knight, The Priory and They Were Sisters. Unfortunately, readability is not a quality that is studied in universities; thus no literary critic has ever defined what makes Dorothy Whipple’s domestic, everyday books so gripping. I think it is simply because she creates such alive and realistic characters –"

What they say is so true. We don't always need "GREAT LIT" but we do need to care about the characters.....

Cloudia said...

Here Here!

If it doesn't ignite or resonate with you/me, it isn't a good book for you/me.

I tried to capture lightening in a bottle (with my little novel). Some are electrified - some are not... I was humbled and gratified at the result, and folks I admire and respect LOVED it. Oh yeah, it's a good book!

Aloha, Thoughtful Friend!

Comfort Spiral

Raph G. Neckmann said...

Really enjoyed reading this, Weaver! It's interesting that you do not like lots of dialogue - I like descriptive passages too, but was told they were 'outdated' or something!

Have you ever read BB's books about the 'Little Grey Men'? I've just remembered them and how I loved them - and his autobiography 'A Child Alone'.

The making of a Shropshire garden sounds interesting!

thousandflower said...

My mother read Anne of Green Gables to me because her mother loved it and I have read it to all my children, not just the first book but the whole wonderful series. And I have a daughter named Marilla.

Poet in Residence said...

And so I went and found a good book book. Last night I read the first 29 pages of Bill Bryson's 'Made in America' far, so good. In fact, very good.

Derrick said...

Hello Weaver,

Another conversation starter! Strange that you don't like lots of dialogue. I'm fascinated by the words that the author puts into the characters' mouths; even in historical novels when they couldn't possibly know what was actually said. It can help bring the character to life for me.

Golden West said...

I consider a book good if the writer makes me care enough about the characters to spend the time to find out what happens to them!

Gramma Ann said...

It's amazing how we all have our own taste as to what a good book means to us. I want to be entertained when I read a book. A good book to me keeps my attention, and I hate putting it down to do anything, even eat or sleep. Give me finger food when I'm reading a "good" book.

The book that comes to mind that I had trouble putting down when I read it was: "Gone With The Wind." Loved that book. Some nights it was 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning before I would put it down and go to bed.

I enjoyed this post, very enjoyable read.

Rachel Fox said...

Anne of Green you're talking!

Blogger A Cuban in London has been posting a series of pieces by Zadie Smith about novels. Worth a look if you've not been over that way.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I do love it when I choose a subject for my blog which gets you all into discussion mode. There are some interesting books mentioned here - and some interesting views on what makes a good book - it is such a personal thing, isn't it. I think maybe all bloggers are avid readers because none of you here have any difficulty in passing an opinion or recommending a good read. Thank you for all the comments.

Midlife Jobhunter said...

I think that would make a fascinating discussion - what makes a good book. I know that my book club would have quite the variety of opinion.

I read for the characters, myself. Reading your list, I understand there are too many books I've yet to enjoy.

the watercats said...

Agree with you there on the Harry Potter books! For me a book must have beautiful language, or an unusual approach. As noted thoguh, it's all horses for courses, one man's gold is another man's rubbish!.. interesting topic though!

BT said...

What a marvellous post. Your analysis of what makes a good book was spot on. What's good for one is dreadful to another, I have often found this too with a 'recommended' book. As for my favourite all timer? Birdsong, of course. I loaned it to so many other people and they all felt the same.