A humble little blog about books, information, and other things that are good to know.

Posts tagged ‘writing’

Five Thoughts on Fifty Shades

I won’t tell you not to read Fifty Shades of Grey and its accompanying sequels, all written by E.L. James. It’s against every grain of my librarian instinct to try to prevent reading, or to shame people over their reading choices. But I can’t keep silent either.

I’m partway through the book – reading it together with a friend – and I feel like there are a few things I have to put out there that have really troubled me as I’ve worked my way through the story. I’m not looking to turn people off the books, but I do hope that anyone who chooses to read them will do so with a bit more critical thought for having heard what I’ve got to say.



Five (or More) Reasons to Start A Book Journal

A book lover's journal.

Image via The Bookmooch Journals.

It was a suggestion from one of my professors at librarian school, for a class on Reader’s Advisory Services. (That translates from library-speak as “helping people decide what books to check out even if their tastes are different from yours”.)  She said, “I write down the author and title of every book I read, along with a summary in my own words of what they’re about. That way, if somebody wants to know what I’ve read and would recommend, I’ve got it all at my fingertips.” Sometimes, she suggested, library patrons would page through her journal to get ideas for their own reading lists.

What good is a book journal? And how is it different from a regular journal? A book journal is a place to record all the books you’ve read – good, bad, or indifferent – in chronological order, a log of your life as a reader. It can be as simple or as complicated as you like, as long as it tracks your reading history across time. In a way, this blog’s “What Is Your Librarian Reading?” feature functions as a book journal: I write about every book I read. But what you don’t see is that I also keep a paper log of my reading choices that I’ll (hopefully) have on hand long after this blog is lost to cyberspace.


Making A Difference for the Developmentally Disabled

This is a story with a lot of good news in it. It’s got writing. It’s got compassion. And it’s got a group of young adults finding the inspiration to make a better world for people who are different – not to mention the people who love them.

The Wall Street Journal (Classroom Edition) ran this article about Soeren Palumbo, who is now a student at Notre Dame. But before that, he was a teenage speech-writer who, inspired by love for his mentally disabled sister Olivia, used his high school’s Writer’s Week to condemn the use of the word “retarded” in everyday speech.


A Gold Star for Dan Brown

Dan Brown

Image via Famous Talks. Click the link to see Dan Brown on Good Morning America.

I’ve never made any secret of my disdain for Dan Brown – bad form for a librarian, I know. But something about him has always bothered me. Sure, he can throw together a brilliant story with twists and turns and mysteries that are tough to solve. But it never quite disguised the awkwardness of his writing style, the fact that his stories are novelizations of the movies in his head rather than books designed for reading. He just doesn’t use the language well.

At least, he didn’t.

But I’m pleased to announce that, having finished reading The Lost Symbol, I can offer up a different opinion of Dan Brown. The man has stepped up his game. He’s never told a better story. I enjoyed The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons because they were fascinating tales, but The Lost Symbol went one better. It was a fascinating tale told in an engaging, clear way with humour, character development, and – dare I say it? – literary merit. Is it a better editor? More practice? Has he just been reading a lot of good works? I don’t even care. The point is, Dan Brown has always been coming up with clever intellectual mysteries, but now he’s got the writing style to back up the cleverness.

There’s a lesson in this, for Dan Brown and every other aspiring writer out there: no matter how absorbing your story line, it’s no good if you can’t use the language well. You might get the attention of avid readers – sure, it worked for Dan Brown – but fake-sounding dialogue, awkward descriptions, and stilted prose draw the reader out of the story’s world. You don’t want your writing style to jar the reader into remembering this is only a book.

Thanks to . . . well, whatever Brown has changed, I hit scarcely any of those jarring snags as I read The Lost Symbol. That made it more suspenseful, more gripping, and more fascinating than any of the other Dan Brown  novels. It made the ideas (like noetics, symbology, absolute truth, and the potential of the human  mind) clearer and more fascinating for me, and it helped me to feel closer to the characters, who seemed funny, emotional, and genuine to me for the first time.

Put simply, the plot was standard Dan-Brown goodness, but the writing made this novel.

What Makes A Good Book?

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.

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