Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What Makes A Great Book?

First, let me talk about what makes a book bad.  Bad is a broad category but I was pulled into it recently when an author I liked moved to a different publisher and then released a new book which appeared to be of a different genre than he had used previously.  I was excited to read where he was headed now, but the book was disappointing.  Errors kept stopping me.  Missing words, wrong words, words repeated too frequently and used inappropriately.  Each one brought the flow of the text to a halt and forced me to consider what happened.  I decided that the move to a new publisher came with a sub-standard editor.  Editors are supposed to catch those sorts of things before the book is released.  Next, the book was a type of mystery.  I thought I knew from the start the identity of the evil-doer, but I hoped I was wrong.  We all want to be surprised.  The end was a disappointment because I was right.  I don’t put a lot of thought into reading fiction, so only poor writing could have caused this.  Finally, I found the characters so unrealistic that I could not believe in the story.  What do I mean by that?  It is the author’s task to create an environment where we can believe what is happening.  This author failed to do that.  I really liked his last series of books, so I will not mention his name here.  Everyone has a flop at some point and I hope this will be his only one.

Next, I’ll move on to books that are memorable for one or more reasons.  A contemporary author who has created some of the most memorable scenes for me is Ted Dekker.  No, he is not what I would consider a great writer, but there are places in his books, where I need to stop.  Not because of poor word choice or bad editing, but because he has described something so transcendent that I don’t want to forget it.  That makes him an author whose books I remember and refer to in years to come.  Not all of his books do that for me, but certainly his Circle Trilogy did.

Black/Red/White (The Circle Trilogy 1-3)

Other authors cause me to question life as I view it.  Madeleine L’Engle has singularly done that for me since childhood.  Any one of her books, at some time of my life, has pushed me into places I needed to go and restored me from the depths.  I have read every one of her books, many of them more than once.  She is the writer whose writings I most want to emulate.  My only regret is that I never met her in person. 

Annie Dillard is another writer who has made a difference in my life.  The first time I picked up one of her books, I could not get through it because I was stopped short by a scene she depicted.  It moved me so greatly that I could not continue.  In the years since that time I have tried to find that same scene and failed.  Did that scene exist or did something she wrote create an image in my mind that was different from her words?  I don’t know the answer.  Her use of language is something I try to emulate.  She paints pictures with words.  It is my goal to read all of her books in my lifetime.  I am grateful she hasn’t written many because her books take time to read and ponder.

Flannery O’Connor wrote letters, book reviews, short stories, and novels.  I own her collected works because it includes her novels, short stories, and letters.  Flannery wrote many letters by typewriter to readers and other writers and friends.  She used carbon paper to keep a copy for herself.  I find her letters easier to read than her novels and short stories which have given me images that cannot leave me. 

What books move you?

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