Wednesday, April 15, 2009

COMMENTARY: What Makes a Good Book "Good"?

So I have a question. What makes a good book “good”? I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately (what with all the spare time I have on my hands these days). And I’ve asked a few people what they think. My 7-year-old daughter thinks that the most important feature of a good book is that it has interesting pictures. She also doesn’t like a book to be boring and wants an exciting story to read. My husband also thinks a book needs to be exciting and have a minimal amount of dialogue. Nothing would bore him to tears faster than the emotional lumberings of an author like Jane Austen (who, by the way, is one of my favorites).

Well, that makes sense for them, I suppose. But why is it that sometimes the most plot-deprived stories are the best books I’ve ever read, and that some of the most exciting storylines are just not that enjoyable to read? And I don’t really need pictures if the author is good at painting them for me with words.

So here is my list of the top six things that make a good book “good” to me:
1. Relatable Characters. I have to be able to relate to the people I’m reading about, at least at some level. I may be able to sympathize with them. I may hate them because they are so awful. Or I may fall in love. But I have to FEEL something about the characters or I just have no interest in reading the book.
2. Use of Language. I really don’t like books that are written at a 4th grade reading level, generally speaking. I want to be challenged by the words in a book. I want to twist my mind through detailed, expressive and complex sentences. If I have to re-read a sentence in a book to really understand it, I don’t look at that as a bad thing. One of the best authors at doing this is Ayn Rand (“Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead”—two of the best books I’ve ever read). “The Lord of the Rings” Trilogy was also an incredible read for that same reason (not to mention the fact that it was exciting…)
3. Unique Storyline. Nothing I hate more than having a little bit of déjà lu (that feeling that you’ve read this before) when it’s a book you haven’t actually read. That “same old, same old” story just doesn’t do it for me. I want to read about something new and interesting! Give me a character I’ve never seen, a plot that I’m impressed with, or a locale that I’m excited to learn more about. Give me something NEW!
4. How It Makes Me Feel. If I finish a book and I feel like I’ve been left hanging, or if the ending was uselessly sad or upsetting (the book doesn’t necessarily have to have a happy ending, but the ending needs to have some purpose), or if I feel like I’ve just wasted hours of my life on a stupid story, the book will not be on my favorites list. I want to feel good when I finish a book. I want to feel like I got something out of it, like I learned something, or just that it made me happy to have read it.
5. Does It Make Me Think? I will be glad I read any book that can make me think. If you tell me a story and it makes me question my own life, my own existence, you were successful. One of the best books for this was “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel. You read this absolutely incredible tale about a boy who was given a death sentence, which he somehow survives, only to make you question the very core of your own beliefs.
6. Good Title and Interesting Book Cover. So maybe it doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things what the name of the book is or what the cover looks like, but if the title is boring, I'm not even going to pick it up. And if the cover is grotesque or disturbing or ordinary, it doesn't make me want to open up the pages to see more. Startle me with a provocative title and I'm much more prone to read you!

So what makes a good book “good” to you?


  1. I agree that the characters have to be relatable. I have to feel like I know them in order to be interested in their story.
    I don't always agree that the book has to be challenging. Especially the books that I read at bedtime. I don't want to have to think about what I am reading. I just want to relax and enjoy the story.
    I do love it when I read a book and at the end just sit there and say "wow" and they kind of hang with you for awhile and make you look inside and think about yourself.
    The biggest turn-off in a book for me is when they don't really have emotion and they are technical.

  2. You mentioned that "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged" are two of the best books you have ever read, yet as of 8/31/11, it appears you haven't reviewed either of them. Were you planning on reviewing them at some point? If not, why not?

  3. I haven't read The Fountainhead nor Atlas Shrugged in a long time. I will put them back on my "to read" list and will add reviews soon!