A Good Read

There have been a number of posts and references around the bloggernacle recently about what constitutes a good book. The Wiz lamented the state of bestsellers, Heather O talked about what she thinks is a good story (and in doing so, referenced those she thought were bad), and Adam linked to A Reader’s Manifesto, which attacks recent Literary Works. All of this got me thinking about what I consider a good book.

One thing that made me think about this especially were Heather O’s disparaging comments about Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. While I don’t know that it’s a Literary Masterpiece, I do consider it one of the best books I’ve read in years. It’s one of the few books that, after I checked out a copy and read it, I went to the bookstore and bought my own (new) copy. It was good enough that I knew I wanted to have it in my collection. Of course, Heather O is entitled to her own opinion of it, but our differing opinions really got me thinking about why I like it, and why I like books in general.

The conclusion I came to was that for me, a good book is all about the characters. A good book makes me feel what the characters are feeling. There needs to be a halfway decent plot, but if I can’t relate to the characters, no amount of plot will save the book for me. The same goes for the actual prose. It needs to not get in the way of the story too much, but I honestly don’t care if it’s great. I recently re-read what have always been some of my favorite books (the early Valdemar books by Mercedes Lackey) and I realized that the prose really isn’t that good. It’s not horrible, but there are a lot of places that sentence structure and the like could be significantly improved. But you know what else I realized? I really don’t care. The fact that the prose isn’t wonderful really doesn’t bother me, and doesn’t make me love these books any less. They mean a lot to me because they made me feel like someone understood me and understood how I felt at times in my life when I wasn’t really sure anyone did. That is what makes them great books — I can empathize with the characters, and conversely, if others can write characters who feel like these ways, I’m not alone in feeling them.

So for me a story is all about its characters, and my ability to really empathize with them, and feel what they do. I realize that this isn’t true for everyone, though. So I want to know: What makes a book really great for you?


  1. I really like your point about “prose . . . need[ing] to not get in the way of the story.” I don’t read much fiction, but in any kind of writing, I think your point is correct. A few writers are skilled enough to actually make their prose work in their favor, but for everyone else, it’s best if they just make it as unobtrusive as possible. I include myself in the latter group, of course, in my academic writing, or really anything I write.

  2. I’m an “it’s all about the characters” person as well, so the standard “more plot!” request presents me with a formidable challenge. 😀 I’ve heard of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight before, but this is the first discussion that has left me strongly tempted to read it……..

  3. Editorial Reviews
    From School Library Journal
    Starred Review. Grade 9 Up–Headstrong, sun-loving, 17-year-old Bella declines her mom’s invitation to move to Florida, and instead reluctantly opts to move to her dad’s cabin in the dreary, rainy town of Forks, WA. She becomes intrigued with Edward Cullen, a distant, stylish, and disarmingly handsome senior, who is also a vampire. When he reveals that his specific clan hunts wildlife instead of humans, Bella deduces that she is safe from his blood-sucking instincts and therefore free to fall hopelessly in love with him. The feeling is mutual, and the resulting volatile romance smolders as they attempt to hide Edward’s identity from her family and the rest of the school. Meyer adds an eerie new twist to the mismatched, star-crossed lovers theme: predator falls for prey, human falls for vampire. This tension strips away any pretense readers may have about the everyday teen romance novel, and kissing, touching, and talking take on an entirely new meaning when one small mistake could be life-threatening. Bella and Edward’s struggle to make their relationship work becomes a struggle for survival, especially when vampires from an outside clan infiltrate the Cullen territory and head straight for her. As a result, the novel’s danger-factor skyrockets as the excitement of secret love and hushed affection morphs into a terrifying race to stay alive. Realistic, subtle, succinct, and easy to follow, Twilight will have readers dying to sink their teeth into it.–Hillias J. Martin, New York Public Library
    Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. –This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

    See all Editorial Reviews

    Hmm, I have to confess I’m not big on vampire romance novels.

  4. I’m not very much into vampire romance either but all this discussion of “Twilight” is really piquing my curiosity.

    I have to add this though:

    Meyer adds an eerie new twist to the mismatched, star-crossed lovers theme: predator falls for prey, human falls for vampire.

    It’s hardly a new twist. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” did this 10 years ago. A book called “The Silver Kiss” — another YA book — did it 15 years ago. The “Anita Blake” books have been doing it for 14 years and have 15 books in the series.
    Robin McKinley jumped on the vampire romance bandwagon four years ago with “Sunshine.” I don’t know about the Anne Rice books; I don’t know if they’re vampire romance or just vampire sex. None of this means “Twilight” isn’t a good book. It’s just not a new concept.

    Now, show me a book where the vulnerable human is the guy and the noble, tortured supernatural creature is the girl and THAT I will consider a new twist! 🙂

  5. Just as a point of information for those of you who are not fans of vampire fiction — I’m generally not, either. Twilight and its sequels are, in fact, the only vampire fiction I have ever read (though I have watched Buffy and Angel). But I definitely recommend it, especially if you’re someone who likes character stories.

  6. Great questions, Vada.

    I’m intrigued by the question of what it is that opens and closes books to us, of what draws us to some and repels us from others. I always like to know what books other people like, and why, and what books they don’t, and why not. It’s a great way to get to know someone and to understand something about her.

    I find (as I’m guessing most of us do) that different books offer different pleasures, and that sometimes books that were previously inaccessible suddenly open to me in the light of greater experience and expanded understanding, or that I come to appreciate books I already love on more levels. A few years ago I started to find an immense, almost wholly new in nineteenth-century novels, for the simplest of all possible reasons–they’re long. They sustain their pleasures over time, and they offer more and more and more of their characters, more and more stories, more and more narrative reflections and interlocking lives. There’s something so satisfying about a really long and engaging book, about knowing a short way in that there’s so much to follow. There’s even something satisfying about holding a thick novel in your hands and feeling the thickness of it, the weight.

    It’s fascinating too how books meet individual character. When I first encountered Donald Barthelme’s brilliant short stories in college, I thought immediately of my siblings Ziff and Kiskilili. The incisive, manic perfection of Barthelme’s tone reminded me of the endless smart-alecky remarks they used to reel off as Lynnette and I, the serious sibs, tried (bossily, in my case) to get everyone to get something done.

    This summer I’ve been reading Dickens and now A.S. Byatt’s quartet of novels about Frederica Potter. I love the way her novels are both so intellectually engaging, full of ideas and reflections, and so socially astute in their renderings of all the subtleties of character and motive and human interaction. (I’m fascinated too by how dislikeable her main character is, and yet sympathetic in her very dislikeability. That’s an enormous achievement, I think.)
    But neither Lynnette nor Kiskilili likes Byatt much. Kiskilili loves Rosellen Brown; I like her quite well but not as much as Kiskilili does. I know most of us love Margaret Atwood. (Any dissenters besides Ziff who I know doesn’t read fiction much?) And my absent sister Melyngoch and I may be the only ones in the family who like either Shakespeare or Billy Collins.

    Questions of taste and pleasure in art are just endlessly engaging. (And just for the record, vampire fiction has never particularly appealed to me, either.)

  7. Although I am certainly not the reader I used to be, I have found a few great books in the last few years. I’m a big fan of Chaim Potok, and have just started A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini’s (although I’m not sure I’ll finish it, it’s too depressing). Like Ziff, I’m more likely to read non-fiction than fiction, but when I do, I agree that character is a big part of what draws me in. Also, I don’t like too much emotional manipulation. I get sucked into the story so easily and if I’m crying by page 30, I know it’s going to be a miserable experience. But with some books it’s worth it (like The Chosen) and with other books, it’s not. The author has to really give something back if they ask you to commit so much emotionally.
    How’s that for criteria for liking a book? Don’t make me cry, but if you do, it had better darn well be for a good reason.

  8. It’s an interesting question. I find that a lot of the time when I’m reading for pleasure, I’m feeling lazy, and I want something that draws me in right away; I don’t have the patience to make it through a couple of slow first chapters before things get going.

    The books I’ve read that have really impacted me, though, and which I’ve re-read multiple times have tended to be more character-driven than plot-driven. And sometimes they have been slow at the beginning (and not only at the beginning!) So I think it must also have to do with the mood I’m in.

    I’m not at all into vampire stuff–I like Buffy and Angel despite the vampire aspects, not because of them. But this has gotten me curious about Stephanie Meyers; I’ll probably give her a try.

  9. It’s interesting that you say that the prose doesn’t matter, as long as it doesn’t get in the way. I actually feel the same way, and one of the reasons that I was annoyed with Twilight was because the prose WAS distracting to me. Her overuse of adjectives was killing me, and it just seemed like she was trying too hard. Interesting that you found the opposite.

    I do applaud Meyer for finding some new twists with what could be tired ground–inventing new myths about vampires–the super speed, and why they stay in doors, etc.

    And I didn’t say I wasn’t entertained. I got sucked in like everybody else, and went ahead and bought the sequel, too, just to see what happens. But I have to say I’m actually tired of her prose, and probably will not pick up another one of her books. Her story in the second book I found was actually even better and more intriguing than the vampire/human love story, but even her good story wasn’t enough to overcome her distracting prose.

  10. I know most of us love Margaret Atwood. (Any dissenters besides Ziff who I know doesn’t read fiction much?)

    I don’t mean to shock you, Eve, but I’ve actually read three of Margaret Atwood’s books. I loved The Handmaid’s Tale but I really didn’t get Surfacing or Lady Oracle. I think maybe I just liked The Handmaid’s Tale because I tend to like dystopic and apocalyptic fiction maybe more than I liked Margaret Atwood specifically. You may now commence to throwing things. 🙂 Oh, wait, but before you do, should I try Oryx and Crake?


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