Top Ten Tuesday: A Conversation About What Makes For Good Books

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature from The Broke and The Bookish.

I’m not going to lie–this week’s topic was really difficult for me. There are sometimes books where I wonder what this would have been like with more female characters, or wished a book had a little more resolution or a different ending. But these feelings are so few and far between, so fleeting, that I wouldn’t even have enough of them to make any sort of cohesive list.

My mom and I were talking about this topic on the phone. I told her I’d given up on this week’s post because I had no idea what to write about. We started talking about books and what makes a book good and what makes a book enjoyable. I wanted to share some of our thoughts with you instead of a normal list-type post. These thoughts aren’t all that organized, so I hope you will excuse my rambling.

In general, I abide by the rule that there is always more to read. So, if I don’t like a book, I don’t sweat it and I just set it aside. But I also know that there is a book for every reader and a reader for every book. If I two-star a book on Goodreads that someone else gave five stars to, does that make either of us a bad reader? I don’t think so. We just have different tastes.

A lot of reading is subjective. What do you enjoy, and how do you find books with those attributes? Everyone has individual preferences. But writing is not just something done for entertainment. It has its “low” and “high” Art sides, but any way you slice it, literature is an art form. Every book is a cultural artifact, striving to teach us something about humanity and our own times or times past.

Sometimes I’ve felt pressure to feel certain ways about books by peers or by professors. Ulysses, for example, is not my favorite book. Not even close. But how do you tell that to a professor who has spent his whole academic career grappling with a single author? I appreciate James Joyce’s brilliance–and I understand he deserves acclaim and readership. He created a masterwork. He’s a Michelangelo of the written word.

But here’s the issue: we can agree Michelangelo was a master and not like his work. Even the not-so-subjective ways we have of judging art (and books) are, in some ways, subjective. We can agree that there are certain things we look for in books: character development, plot, description and narrative style, etc. But there’s no gold standard or formula for great literature, and in the end art is judged individually. Hopefully critics understand the context and are well-versed enough in their area to give a good opinion, but ultimately appreciating art is about values. Do you value characters over plot the way that I do? Do you value experimentation? Description or word play? In other words, what do you put up on a pedestal?

Chances are, the books that you feel are missing something are simply books that don’t value the same things that you do. Not every book can do everything at 100%. In art, some aspects take a back seat to give others emphasis. Whether you agree with those decisions or not decides in a large part whether you’ll like the book.

I think it’s always important to read with an open mind. If we’re always trying to make a book something that it’s not, we miss out on what it is. Sometimes maybe it’s better to miss out, and that’s okay. But I think it’s important to remind ourselves that someone took the time to put those words on paper, to create a part of culture. Whenever I read I try (and this is not always easy) to think not what does this book need, but what does it already offer?

 

What do you think makes a book great? Let me know in the comments.

 

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