Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sunday Salon: What makes a good book?

I've been sitting around today musing about what makes a book a good read. And of course, I realize that what I think makes a book good, won't necessarily make it a good read for someone else. Why would I be pondering this, you ask? Well, because I have a new gig of sorts. Really it's just a formalization of what I've been doing for years, reading and recommending books. And it won't carry my name but rather carry the endorsement of a committee of which I am only a part. But it's a big responsibility to help decide which books will get our imprimatur as good reading group books. Hence my Sunday pondering. My short list at the moment contains: believable and complex characters, an issue or concern which could engender difference of opinion or disparate views among readers, engaging writing, an accurate representation of the time in which the book is set, and a subject or plot of sufficient interest to keep readers turning pages. Some wonderful books won't fit all these criteria of mine. In my experience, not all books are fodder for a good discussion. So what makes a book a good discussion book for you?

This past reading week I spent time in ancient Greece with a young man favored by the gods. I investigated the murder of a security consultant which was connected to the murder of her great-great-grandfather nearly ninety years previously. I frolicked in a Jane Austen sequel that pulled many of her most famous characters together into one storyline. And then I traveled into Pride and Prejudice with a reader of romances, really messing up the plot to the point that an Austen scholar had to help unravel the mess. Finally, I dipped from event to event and essay to essay in the life of an eighty year old memoirist.

The coming week finds me heading north again with my mostly dry books. With luck nothing will happen to them and I will be able to resume my travels inside their crinkled and warped pages rather than just hauling them hither, thither and yon about the country without a glance inside (rather like my school textbooks used to travel).


  1. The problem is, as I see it, is how subjective it it. For example, I know the world loves Life of Pi, and I couldn't stand the book. And I know I love books that other people loathe, so...I wish I could give you good suggestions, but're on your own on this one!!

    Good luck!

  2. Recommending books is such a subjective thing, isn't it? I have loved, loved, loved a book, only to see it panned on another person's blog; and vice versa. But for me, what makes a good book is primarily three things: great characters, engaging plot and beautiful prose. I think what makes a good discussion book is a little different sometimes from what makes a good book...controversial subject matter and unusual presentation seem to generate a lot of conversation. Sometimes books which are polarizing make the best discussion not necessarily ones that everyone agrees on....

  3. You're right...a good book isn't necessarily going to make a good discussion book. That's what often annoys me about Oprah book club choices...they're often the kind of thing that generate lots of similar opinions which is nice if you're the author but boring if you're a book club or reading group.


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