9.21.2011

What Makes a Good Book?

You know how people always explain the process of finding the right guy or girl?  They say, "When it's right, you'll just know."  And they smile all wistfully, thinking of their former selves, those youthful scalawags, and reinventing some magical moment that, let's face it, probably didn't happen.  And we buy into it when it's about people - that there's some mystical math or chemistry or puppeteering going on that makes the angels sing, alerting us to the golden arrow of fate.  Well, sorry young ones, but most of the time it doesn't work this way.  I actually started to write, "it never works this way" but decided not to burst your bubble completely.

Clearly, I don't buy into this notion; I think circumstance and choice play much more significant roles in this process than fairy dust, but I guess the myth persists for a reason.  When circumstance and choice align properly, there often is some inner compass that tells you to keep taking those steps forward until you're standing at the altar (or tree trunk or overlook or waterfall or wherever), swearing to keep choosing that person for the rest of your life, even when they refuse to throw away anything even remotely sentimental and the "bookshelf" next to their bed starts to look like the home of a family of cozy packrats and the mansmell from the dirty laundry is just about to wear you down completely and the dishes get washed but never the plastic bags - NEVER the plastic bags - and the people you become are not the people you were when you stood there all those many years ago.

With a book, circumstance and choice still play a huge role, but I somehow believe in the fairy dust a bit more.  Undoubtedly, there are times and places when certain books just won't work for you regardless of how good they are (Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel in the days after giving birth to my second child is my standard example.  Never. Going. To. Happen.).  It's also true that putting a book aside and returning to it at a more appropriate time can be most rewarding.  My two favorite memories of this are with Dubus' House of Sand and Fog and Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible.  If I hadn't given these books another shot, I would have missed out on some terribly good reads.

On the other hand, though, there have been countless times where a book has had me at hello.  The book I'm currently reading, Wendell Berry's The Memory of Old Jack, is one.  It is short but compact, and I am teasing out my reading of it because I refuse to read it unless I can fully focus on it.  With a pencil.  And a quiet room.  And an awake and alert mind.  I may never finish.

Just as likely, though - more so really - are those books that make us go meh.  We don't throw them across the room (as I once famously did with Conversations with God), we read them, but we don't actually care much.  I can think of several past boyfriends that caused a similar reaction, can't you?  Laura E. Williams Up a Creek (a small people chapter book) was this way for me.  I finished last night despite knowing from page 2 that this book and I had no future together.  I was going to take nothing of worth away from it, other than another tally mark on my list of books read for the year (but who keeps track of such things?  Nobody I know, certainly.) and a willingness to quickly return it to the library.  I don't think it does any harm - it's decently written, there are no glaring errors or inconsistencies (except for the overwhelming stereotypes of both Southerners and hippie-like activists throughout...oh and the fact that Starshine's grandmother apparently makes multiple pies a day even though it's just two women and a girl in their household...okay so maybe a few inconsistencies).  But it just fell flat from the first moments, and I'm not convinced it was just my age that did it.  Kids have the remarkable capacity to know good literature when they see (or hear) it.  Somehow, just like we do, they just know.

What about you?  Do you believe in those magical moments?  Or is there less magic and more skill, art, and grace involved?  What makes good books ...good?