Today while walking to work, it hit me. Or at least, something hit me. Maybe it was just a pinecone.
Assume books aren't good because of technical, measurable standards. A book isn't good because of the quality of its writing, or characterization, or plotting, or originality. No, it's not what I've long postulated in my notebooks... in fact, it's completely different. Let's assume for a moment that a good book is defined not by its actual components, but rather by the balance between two further definitions: how enjoyable and how rewarding it is.
These sound like terrible options off the bat but grant me the benefit of the doubt for a moment. For starters, I don't mean "enjoyable" in the sense of necessarily fun or upbeat, but rather a book that one enjoys reading. Under enjoyable you can list several relevant factors (quality writing, emotional attachment to the characters, etc.) that ultimately make the reading experience pleasurable.
The chart below is a crude, preliminary representation of what I think might be my personal Chart to Define a Good Book.
|Click to enlarge|
The two categories are not mutually exclusive and are missing many possible factors of good books, such that the chart doesn't really cover all bases. I'm certain I've left some things out and included a few factors that other readers might not care about. The chart can't actually map the path to the perfect book. But it can make things a bit clearer. For me, at least.
For instance, it helps me figure out what my problem with Dubravka Ugrešić's The Museum of Unconditional Surrender was - it was a remarkably intelligent, rewarding book but I didn't enjoy reading it at all. It's bursting with technical greatness but lacked a personal spark. For me as a reader - just for me - this was not a good book. It's measurably good, yes, but that's not eough.
Or The Hunger Games, on the other end of the scale. It's fun and is quite entertaining... does that make it a good book? No. It lacks originality, breadth and fully formed characters. It's something I would recommend to certain readers (same for Ugrešić, for that matter), something I really enjoyed reading, but this also was not a good book. Enjoyable is not enough either.
Where do the two meet? Wolf Hall was endlessly intelligent and also bursting with living, breathing characters. The writing was brilliant, the pacing consistently smooth. The book is clearly enjoyable and clearly rewarding. Or Philippe Claudel's wonderful Brodeck's Report, a book that I was so pleased to have read and one I learned so much from. And of those other books, the ones that don't qualify as good... a lot of them are still worthwhile. I wasn't disappointed to have read John Green's Paper Towns or Scott Westerfeld's Behemoth (actually, Behemoth is so much fun and set in such a good world that it really does approach good). I recognized the literary merits of Han Shaogong's A Dictionary of Maqiao even if I couldn't enjoy it at all and struggled to finish it. Good is the ultimate honor in this case, not just a three-star rating. Good is the ideal book. Everything else is just approaching good.
Which is okay too. Just knowing what a good book means, just understanding the difference between enjoyable and rewarding and the juncture between the two is worthwhile in its own right. Maybe now I can stop stressing about why books have ceased to amaze me and just enjoy the reading process.