The cartoon above has been popping up on various people’s Facebook feeds in the last few days, and it strikes home since I spent Tuesday evening doing THAT THING EXACTLY in a coffee shop. You can read all about how and why that happened in my review of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. Then you can read my review of Joshilyn Jackson’s A Grownup Kind of Pretty and Liz Moore’s Heft, neither of which made me outright cry but each of which absorbed all my attention for a couple of days and made me feel like the people on the pages were more real than many of the breathing three-dimensional people all around me. And then you can check out the rest of my book reviews at Compulsive Overreader. Then come back here to marvel with me over how many truly engaging books I’ve stumbled across so early in my reading year of 2012, and over the wonder that is reading, in general.
Already, I’d dare to speculate these three novels will probably make my Top Ten List for 2012. Which got me thinking about what happens in my head when I read something that I label “a great book.” It has nothing to do with whether a book is on a bestseller list, or whether a book has won any literary awards. Both those things give you certain information, but the book-reader connection is intense and personal, and the fact that a book moves me deeply doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to move a million other readers, or a handful of people on an important literary jury.
What do I mean when I label a book “great”? I think several factors are involved:
1. Character, character, character. Oh, and voice. Hearing a character speak in my head (and while I love first-person novels, this can happen in good third-person writing too, and sometimes, thinking back, I can’t even remember whether a book was written in first person or third) is the essential thing. When I pick up a book, I have to hear that voice, and believe it, and quickly it becomes the voice of a real human being.
2. And plot, kind of. A great book is un-put-downable. It keeps me turning pages. I have to come back to it again and again, or stay with it if time permits, until I find out what happens. Each of the three books above I read in two days or less because I couldn’t not read them. But I still think that plot is far less important than character. When I’m absorbed in a story, I want to know what happens not necessarily because the events themselves are of such breathtaking excitement, but because I’ve fallen in love with one or more characters and I care deeply about what happens to them.
3. Oh, and the writing. I can enjoy a light, fluffy, badly-written book for some mindless fun, but any book that’s going to truly absorb me has to be written with care and precision and language that is beautiful in and of itself. But not so beautiful that it stands in the way of the story. There are books I’ve been unable to love because the writing is drawing too much attention to itself, like a gorgeous stained-glass window that I can’t help but admire, except that the characters and their lives are on the other side and I can’t see them very well through it.
4. Also, there’s the eye-stabby thing. This is unique to readers who are also writers, I think, but there’s a point in every good book where I want to stab out the eyes of either 1) the writer, or 2) myself, or 3) both, because why can s/he write like that and I can’t?!?!?!??! If I haven’t had at least one good eye-stabby moment the book probably doesn’t make any of my Top Ten lists, sorry. I have to envy what the writer has done, and think, “Could I ever do that? Probably not. But I’d love to.”
5. Mostly, though, there’s what happens after I put the book down. It lingers. An ordinary book I can enjoy while reading, lay it down and move on with my life. An exceptional book stays with me. The characters haunt me. Often I have to pick it up and reread bits within the next few days, just to return to that world that was so vivid and real. At the moment, having read these three books in fairly close proximity, I feel like Arthur and Kel from Heft, and Ginny, Liza and Mosey from Grownup Kind of Pretty, and especially (because I read them most recently, and cried over them) Hazel and Augustus from The Fault in Our Stars are still living in my head, and maybe, if the book was intense enough, sort of in the middle of my chest as well. Often what happens is that the people in the book and the things that happened to them get entwined in my head with people and events in my so-called real life, so that forever after when I think of a particular time and place, the book I was reading at the time is there as well, a part of the memory, forever sewn into the fabric of my life.
That is what great books do. They get sewn into your life. And this process is completely individual, and you can’t predict what book will do it for whom, even if you think you know the book and the reader perfectly. I posted on Facebook about my run of fantastic books I’ve been reading, and one of my friends, who shares many of my tastes, said that she’d also read a stretch of great books, and listed them. I’d only read one on her list, and while I enjoyed it, it hadn’t left a huge impression upon me. I’m sure that if a dozen of my friends all sat down and read the same three books that just so deeply moved me, I might find one or two agreements, but for the most part, they wouldn’t touch others quite as they touched me. It’s that fabric thing, you see — all the pieces of me that the book touches, like a book about someone with cancer that I accidentally happen to pick up and read on the one-year anniversary of my last visit with a friend who died of cancer. Neither writer nor reader can predict these things: just be delighted when they happen.
Which means, when I shift from my reader-mode to my writer-mode, that I have to get past the eye-stabby moments, learn what I can from people who do the job well, and just hope that there will be at least a few people out there who pick up one of my books and have trouble putting it down, who find that even after they close the cover the characters still linger. I want my books to get sewn into at least a few people’s lives — because that’s what it’s all about.