Wednesday, February 27, 2013

What makes a "Good Book"?

This is a guest post from one of my good friends. I 95% agree with what she says here. I have just never taken the time to lay it out there.

Based on her post, here are a few of my all-time favorite books:
Flower Garden by Gene Stratton Porter
The Lost Prince by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Spindle's End by Robin McKinley

And here are her words:

And now for a deceptively easy question:
“Is this a GOOD BOOK?”

The answer delves into the purposes of reading.

Is this a good book? could mean:
Will I enjoy it? –  Does it conform to my tastes?  ((Other things also make books enjoyable - see footnote))

Is it non-poisonous? Will it be safe for my children to read? – profanity, graphic violence, sex: these obviously make it unsafe, but what about ideas? How does it portray adults, children, strangers? (Are there adults present? are they relevant? clueless? trustworthy? evil? the enemy? Are other kids to be trusted? what about rule-breaking? What about friendship and loyalty? what does it say are the standards for when to keep and when to break a secret? Many books relegate adults to the perimeter and have kids work out their own (frequently adult-caused) problems or suffer from the absence of adults (Lord of the Flies, anyone?).   How are ideas presented, explored, resolved?  What ideas are there?

What does the book teach me to laugh about? Is the laughter innocent or shamed? Is the laughter free or malicious? Is it thankful or proud? Am I laughing because I feel superior to the peon-humans or because I recognize the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”?

What does this book say about reality? Not, does it portray the nitty-gritty dirt of what we call “realism” (see “realism” footnote)
What does this book say about reality? – does it call good, “good,” and evil, “evil.”? (Not, is it a goody-goody airy-fairy nobody-does-anything-but-smile-and skip-over-the-rainbow book? ) Are good and evil portrayed as a struggle, not an alliance? What about choosing sides and why the choice is made? What about the consequences of choosing sides and the danger of not choosing sides?
What does this book say about people? Are good guys totally good? Are bad guys totally bad? Do we applaud the good guys or the bad guys? Does anybody change and what caused the change? What in the book delineates the sides? What will I understand from reading this book about human nature and redemption?

How does the book present a message? A book does not have to have an explicit message – the story can be the message, but if it has an explicit message, is it clear, coherent, courageous and courteous?

Will it darken my mind or bring me light? – will I be weakened or strengthened in my choices for truth and justice and mercy and generosity from reading this book? Does this book show hope as well as sadness? If it's a tragedy, will the wound fester or is it a lancing of a boil that needed to be ripped open?

“The problem with trying to make yourself stupider than you are is that you so very often succeed.” – Will this book make me leak brain cells?  Inanity is a crime, too.

Is this book well-written? Do the sentences flow, march, leap, kick, vault heights, soar to the clouds? Are the characters believable, sympathetic, multi-dimensional or purposely one-dimensional? Is the plot worth reading, interesting, strongly executed (or did it expire 2/3 of the way through with scarcely a whimper?)? Does it perpetuate grammatical atrocities? Does it drop homonym bombs unintentionally? (Really, if the “mantel” of greatness falls on my son I would expect bruises! The “mantel” belongs over the fireplace, and ours is rather nondescript. And a “palette” is a painter's tool, while a “palate” is a part of the mouth or the sense of taste.) (Should we be homophon-ophobes? ) What is the literary quality of this book? And did it need a better grammar editor? (Salutations to the Grammar Goddess!)

Is this book a spark for imagination? Does it give a door to another world or another set of friends? Sometimes the presentation of an idea or image can spark an imaginative adventure. Apparently many people found this in Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia. In it the two main characters have a secret place across a river where they imagine lots of things. Paterson does not go into a lot of detail on their adventures. (SPOILER: I did not come away with warm fuzzies, rather cold. muddy flood-puddles. The girl drowned and her friend was sad. I never really got over that. It's not a happy book for me. In this rare case I would take the movie over the book since it brought out the land. I never saw such a beautiful place in my imagination reading the book! (I'm a Narnian, myself).)
The Rainbow fairy books probably have this sort of draw for the under 10 set, though they lack much literary value, being tedious, flat-charactered, repetitious, etc.   But little girls see “fairy” and are transported.

footnote: "enjoyable"  -- 
We read for entertainment, escape, to be reminded of a more innocent time, to look forward to a better time, to meet characters who we like to associate with and learn from, to laugh, to have “aha!” moments as we learn and think. It turns out that we enjoy a book for various reasons, too.  Since these relate to the other reasons and questions for reading I'll try to cover them there.

footnote: “realism” (Why we call “realism” that literature that treats only sordid and harsh physical details and leaves out love and pity and hope and laughter is another question entirely! That type of literature would be better called “limited-perspective materialist pessimism” since they only look at the depressing things going on in the physical world and deny not only that there is any relief in the present bleakness or any hope for change in the physical circumstances, but more importantly that there is meaning in the present and hope of an afterwards. A definite (and sordid and depressing) example of this is Zola's Deluge. Eurgh.) –

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