Thursday, 1 March 2012

World Book Day: What do you want from a book?

HAPPY WORLD BOOK DAY, EVERYONE! To celebrate, I'm pondering on what exactly makes a good book, which could take a while as it's not an easy question, as everyone has a different answer and even then it can depend on what kind of mood you're in. For example, on a day when I'm feeling a bit classic-y, I might say 'Oh, I simply adore Emily Bronte's 'Wuthering Heights' (though hopefully I wouldn't say it in such a pretentious way.) Alternatively, if another day I'm feeling a bit... cooler, shall we say, I might go for 'High Fidelity' by Nick Hornby. (Incidentally, I said 'High Fidelity' was my favourite book in a job interview once... I didn't get the job. Probably should have gone for 'War and Peace' by Tolstoy, or something. Though I did talk about 'The Chronicles of Narnia' for about half an hour in my interview for my current job, so maybe the first interview people just didn't like Nick Hornby). Generally, though, I'll go for 'To Kill A Mockingbird', by Harper Lee, because I love it; it's simple, nostalgic (and by that I mean the kids playing, coming-of-age, and so on - not the inherent racism of the Southern USA in the 1930's), and has an excellent plot that seems to give more to you each time you read it. But what about the technicalities of a good book?

When I was at school, I was taught that there are three key elements to a good story: a beginning, a middle, and an end. I have since found out that this is only true if you are under the age of eleven and writing something for homework, as some of the best books I've ever read have had whopping cliffhangers, and some of the earliest examples of Western storytelling start in media res, or in the middle; yes, I'm talking about The Iliad and The Odyssey. The former actually starts about nine years into the Trojan War, and recounts everything that has happened prior through characters swapping memories about the events leading up to the poem's beginning. Similarly, our first real glimpse of Odysseus is nearly at the end of his journey home, when he's stuck with Calypso on her island; he's already bumped into Charybdis, Scylla, Circe and the like, and it's not until he's washed up with the Phaecians that we hear about any of these adventures. So that's beginning-middle-end out of the window; you can start a story almost anywhere you like; it just adds to the mystery. How did this person end up there? Why are those people arguing? What mistake are they referring to? You've barely made it past the first page and already you're needing to know more.

One thing I, in particular, like about a novel, is when it's told from the first person. With first person narration, you only get to see what they get to see, and hear what they hear, so you have to figure things out alongside them. This can be enjoyable, because if you're more emotionally invested in what you're reading, it's a more interactive reading experience. However, it can also be misleading; as I mentioned in my last entry, I found myself sympathetic towards Alex of 'A Clockwork Orange' fame, even though he had committed obscene acts of violence and degradation. Even though I knew he was a bad person, because I was seeing the world from his point of view, I could only see things his way. Similarly, a first-person narrator needs to only tell you what they want to tell you, so if they want to leave out a crucial piece of information, and save it til the end, they can. I love stuff like this; it allows the author to develop a character with many levels, and add extra nuances that a novel with something more of an ensemble cast just can't quite achieve.

I also love it when an author can competently manipulate plots into a certain direction, without directly pointing out to the reader. I like to think things like, 'Now what's going on here?', 'What does he mean by that?', and 'Why have I been told this now?'. This is one area of my life where I actually enjoy being strung along; I detest books where the big twist, or the climax, is not only being hinted at every page, but isn't even being hinted at; there may as well be a big neon Post-It stuck in between the crucial pages, with the words, 'BIG TWIST COMING: [PERSON W] AND [PERSON X] DISCOVER [PLACE Y] AND [PERSON Z] ARE NOT WHAT THEY SEEM - AND PERSON X DIES!' I mean, come on. Don't take me for an idiot! If you're going to have some kind of crucial moment, be subtle - gently hint, suggest, imply, lead up to it; don't have every chapter finish in a 'menacing' cliffhanger that alludes to the same thing (I'm looking at YOU, 'Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters'). I love having those moments where you almost cannot believe what you're reading, and have to rifle back through the previous chapters to double check you're getting it right. Not only does it improve that first read, but it makes later ones better; even though the next time around you know what's coming, you can still start to look out for the hints. 'Company of Liars' by Karen Maitland was particularly good at this, and even now, about four years after the first read, I'm still discovering new elements that allow me to view the entire novel in a different way.

I'm going to be a real nerd here; I love a proper plot. As my anti-Starbook rant of a few entries' ago, I flipping hate a book where nothing happens. This is why I've yet to read 'The Corrections' by Jonathan Franzen, even though it's been on my shelf for over a year and even though it's becoming a film soon, which I'll probably go see rather than (gasp/horror) read the novel, because as far as I can tell, nothing happens, and I'm sorry, I'm not wasting a week on reading something where my wandering around the house as I read it is the most action I encounter.... *Sigh*... *Relaxes*.... Sorry about that; outburst over. I just really loathe books without a structure, because you don't feel like you're getting anywhere, and that's frustrating. I don't care if it's is a metaphor for life, or something; I like pace, I like information, I like characters who interact with each other. Realism I can get everyday; give me something to stay up til 3am for! One of the things that I think made the Harry Potter novels so successful was their structure; by centering the main plot around the school year, the target audience were able to relate to the books, and so were able to keep pace with it. For example, you generally discovered something crucial around Christmas, and you always knew you were getting close to the climax when the Easter Holidays and exams were mentioned. A journey works just a well; then you have a destination for the novel and the characters, something to work towards; it just helps the novel flow better.

Realistic characters; that's another one. I know I just said I don't like books that focus on day-to-day issues, but I do like my characters to generally be relatable,although this is not applicable to all novels; one of the reasons I enjoyed the Troy series was because the characters were so thoroughly predictable, and it allowed me to get swept up in the overall story. In other books, though, such as 'Ralph's Party' by Lisa Jewell, realistic characters are what make the novel. I loved this book because it showed the characters as if they were real people; they were selfish, anxious, occasionally neurotic, enthusiastic, apprehensive, sometimes in denial and at other times so certain. There weren't any cliches, the good people could be bad and the bad people weren't as they seemed; it was characterisation at it's best, and you can't have a good book without decent characters - they're the force that drives the novel.

Now's about the time when I might start to think of a conclusion, but the truth is, I could keep typing this forever (not literally, of course). There are so many things that make a good novel, and whilst I think plot/decent characters/narration are fairly logical points to make, there are so many more that could be mentioned. For example, Jasper Fforde, author of 'The Eyre Affair', 'Lost In A Good Book' and all the other Thursday Next novels, starts each chapter with an exerpt from some essay, or interview, that not only hints at what's to come in this chapter, but also gives you a background knowledge of the universe in which the novels are set. And then, of course, there's the much lauded 'One Day' by David Nicholls; whilst I didn't actually care that much for the book, I did appreciate just how achingly clever it was to only set it on - of course - one day each year, for twenty years. That's the kind of plot device that makes me want to claw my face, it's so unique. But of course, there's only one thing that can truly make a good book, and that is - to bring this thing full circle - how it makes the reader feel. All the people in all the world can be telling you to read such-and-such a book because it's, I don't know, representative of a generation, or thought provoking, or it's so funny you'll cry. But if you don't feel it's representative of a generation, or if it doesn't keep you awake at night as you mull it over, or if you remain stoically unamused, it's not going to be a good book for you. I've thought for a long time that any music is good music if it makes you feel something, be it happiness, laughter, or sadness, and this is applicable to books too. I've mentioned before that my favourite novel is 'To Kill A Mockingbird', and it is; but it's tied in that place with a little-known novel called 'Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day' by Winifred Watson, which is a true rags-to-riches story that is so delightfully fairytale-esque that I go back to it again and again. I love them both, but in different ways, because they make me feel different things, and I think there you have my answer; a good book makes you feel something, anything, and it makes you want to read it, and re-live it, over and over. Good books are the ones on the shelf that are dog-eared and battered, and they'll be different in every home.


  1. Mine is The English Patient. I'm on my second copy and I'm hunting for the perfect leather bound one. God willing I've got another 60 years to reread that bad boy I want a copy that'll age with me.

    Commenting in relevance to the blog post(ish) I'm really enjoying reading these posts.

  2. I like this. I always judge books by their covers! It's more difficult when trying to decide what blogs to read.

    I can tell you're missing academic writing/thought a bit - this is a nice compromise!