Thursday, October 6, 2011

Define "good"

If I had to find the first thread of what would develop into my book-blogging mindset, it would probably be found in the question I asked myself one fall morning in 2007 - what makes a book good? To be honest, it's a question I've actively avoided on this blog. Though I've spent years with the question in mind (whether when reading, blogging, reviewing, writing or simply talking to random people), I continuously struggle to find the answer. Instead, I skirt around my fears that I'm reading "wrong", get annoyed that books suck but don't figure out why, and struggle to express my general devotion to finding the "meaning of books" or at least the meaning of a good book.

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.


  1. You have a lot to think about here, although I'm having a little trouble understanding the technical definitive difference between enjoyable and rewarding, I think I understand what you mean, in essence. Enjoyable is what makes a book fun and rewarding is what you get out of it? Although I wouldn't say The Hunger Games isn't "good" just because it's enjoyable and not rewarding (I do agree with you there), but I'm using a different definition of "good" than you are.

  2. Damn. I do not know if I agree with your system, but I am delighted that you have made a graph to depict it. It seems very manageable and reasonable.

  3. Wow! This makes my little survey feel very amateurish - I'm very impressed by the thought you put into this - and a chart! It has made me ponder on quite what I mean when I say writing is good... I think I usually mean rewarding rather than enjoyable, but it does have to be a bit of both, doesn't it? Ditto characters and plot... all so thought-provoking!

  4. Great post! My problem comes with books I can clearly see have literary merit and teach me things, but I don't enjoy reading. Some books are painful to read, but important and memorable. Are they good?

  5. Great post! I think about this issue with my ratings. Some books are good, but I simply don't enjoy them. Some books are not necessarily good, but I thoroughly enjoy them. Most fall somewhere in between, and I'm always seeking out the rare book that is both brilliant and utterly enjoyable.

  6. I think that "good" is a really relative term when it comes to a book, but I do see where you are coming from in this post. I often feel like the books I think are good are sometimes deemed inferior by others, and a lot of books that others seem to think are good and even outstanding leave me cold. I think it's all a matter of personal quirk.


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