From a librarian’s perspective, I’m not sure there are really bad books out there. One person’s “this is a piece of junk” is another person’s “I couldn’t put it down”. I don’t plan to review books on this site, nor anything else. I don’t believe in reviews; I’m just one person, and what would make my opinion better than any other person’s? Now, if you have a book you’re reading for a specific purpose – say, as a research tool or to become informed or to help your baby learn to read – that’s a different story. Then you can say the book either will or will not help you to achieve your objective. But if you just want to know whether you’d enjoy it or not? Well, that depends on who’s asking.
That said, everybody’s got biases, so I figured full disclosure was the best strategy: let me tell you what I value in a book, what makes me think I’ll enjoy it or look back on it with the awareness that I have enjoyed it. Naturally, this will differ depending on whether what I’m reading is fiction or non-fiction. I enjoy both, depending on my mood. Of course, it goes without saying that some subject matter interests me more than others, but I’ll get into that later. To start off, heres my opinion about what makes a truly good work of fiction:
- Characters I can relate to – If I don’t care what happens to them, why should I invest my time in reading the story? I want them to be believable, with thoughts and opinions reflected in their actions, but I also want them to be people I can take an interest in. I don’t have to like them, but I do have to want to know what’s going to happen to them.
- Strong setting – It doesn’t really matter where it is; I like stories where the setting contributes to the way the story is told and to the atmosphere around it. I want to be able to feel like I’m experiencing the place I’m reading about . . . even if the book is set in the Bahamas and I’m in the middle of a blizzard. Maybe especially then.
- Use of language – The English language has a certain flow to it. Certain words convey different shades of ideas, and as a result if a writer uses a thesaurus to sound smarter, it shows. What’s more, English uses metaphor and imagery to help create atmosphere and convey ideas. When an author’s figurative language doesn’t accomplish these things, it just sounds wonky. In a well-written story, the prose almost seems to get out of the way of the story’s flow; a badly-written story will trip it up with a not-quite-right feeling that’s hard to put your finger on, but definitely distracting.
- Credible dialogue – If it doesn’t sound like something a real person would say, it doesn’t belong in a character’s mouth. And it’s hard to care about characters who sound like cardboard cut-outs instead of real people.
- Perspective and atmosphere – I tend not to enjoy an author who sounds exactly the same in every story. It’s even worse if that particular author writes in the first person. Seeing things from a fresh point of view is the reason why books let you crawl into somebody else’s point of view. Even in a series of books that are all told by or about the same character, changing up the imagery used creates a whole new atmosphere that can really make a story compelling. And if the character is growing and changing as a result of her experiences, wouldn’t she realistically be evolving in her use of metaphor and imagery as well?
And what makes for compelling non-fiction? I may not be any authority, but these are the opinions and judgments I’m bringing to the table when I read a non-fictional work:
- Underlying structure – there isn’t any one best structure; it will change depending on the subject matter. But if the material isn’t laid out in some clear fashion, it’ll be pretty tough to follow.
- A solid thesis – it seems really obvious to suggest that a book needs a point. But some non-fiction writers seem afraid to take their ideas to the logical conclusion by boldly asserting whatever they think the information suggests. I like an author who’s not afraid to take a stand on the information she’s presenting: “this is what I think, and here are the facts that led me to that conclusion”. Books are about ideas, people!
- Appropriate language – if an author is writing a book on genetics for geneticists, it will sound very different than one he’d write for a layperson. An author who writes too technically for his audience will confuse them; keep it too simple, with too many low-level explanations, and technical experts are going to get impatient and probably a little insulted. Writers need to know who they’re writing for; readers do best if they know who a book is meant to serve.
There it is for the record: the things I look for when I’m deciding whether I enjoy a book. You might disagree with me, or not. But that’s not the point. Now that you know where I’m coming from, unknown and anonymous reader somewhere on the worldwide web, we can both try to put aside our biases. But it’s always a good idea to examine them and be aware that they’re there. You can’t erase judgment from your mind, but being aware of it helps you to keep it from clouding your vision.
I read a very wide range of books, but for the record, here are a few of the topics that most interest me: astronomy, biology, Buddhism, Catholicism, cats, Christianity, conspiracies, crime stories, environmentalism, evolution, family dynamics, ghost stories, greed, history, horror, meditation, occult phenomena, parenting, politics, psychology, racism, relationship stories, religion in society, science, sociology, the supernatural, suspense, and theology.