“Five Elements That Make A Book Good To Me”

The biggest problem with a full time librarian job: no time to write. Not a huge amount of time to read, either. It’s the greatest existential problem of working with books for a living: you are literally surrounded by tens of thousands of tomes for the taking and instead of picking one (or two, or twenty) up, cracking the cover, and letting the rush of prose engulf you over the course of an afternoon, you’re stuck having to remain at a respectful distance. Time is the enemy.

In my case, I have other writing projects on the table, too, and often the opportunity to finish everything in a concentrated wave of activity just isn’t there. One effect of this situation is no time to write.  And, as I said, perilously little time to read. With so little reading time, what do you read? Non-fiction is simpler than fiction in that the subject matter determines the need and then personal interests–a favorite author, a notable organization of the material, a book jacket that catches your eye–take over to help you make that final determination. There are many things to agonize over if you don’t want to take a gamble on wasting your time.

Andrea Cumbo over at Andilit.com picked five elements that rang true with me. Those five are:

1. Characters That Feel Real I don’t care if it’s fiction or nonfiction; if the characters seem too perfect or too one-sided (too “flat” to use the writing teacher term), I get bored or annoyed very quickly. I love characters who are flawed and who make mistakes, and I also love characters who seem to mostly get it wrong but also get it right in just brilliant, profound, sparkly ways.

2. Beautiful Language I adore sentences that move like water, trickling through and around or rushing over and easing off the edges. I also adore sentences that sound authentic, as if the character or narrator really said them (and hopefully, the writer actually did – there’s so much to be gained from reading our work out loud.) I love the opening lines of Lolita for their consonance and lulling sound, but I also love how James Baldwin’s words get all choppy and sharp when he speaks of anger.

3. Complex Relationships In a piece of writing, if two characters show some complexity in their relationship, I’m hooked. I’ve never had a relationship where everything was easy, so when I see that played out on the page, I watch closely, partially to see I”m not alone in this experience and partially to get some tips on how to do better in my own friendships. In nonfiction, if a writer can do this, I find it masterful – see Anne Lamott, who manages to show us the complexities of her relationships without having to give us much beyond her own thinking about them.

4. A Good Sense of Time One of the things that’s most difficult for me in some writing, particularly by newer writers, is that it loses a sense of time. I don’t know how much time has passed between actions, or I’m not sure what time period the story is set in. Maybe it’s just that I”m typically hyper-aware of time, but when I don’t know where in a day or year I am, I get frustrated. Good example – The Lord of the Rings; we always know how long Frodo and the boys have been on the road.

5. Honesty For me, all good writing comes down to this – is the writer willing to be honest? This is one of the reasons I love Denis Johnson and Kathleen Norris. It’s why I adore Thomas Merton and so appreciate Chaim Potok. They are able to be honest on the page, even if their characters are not. In fiction, this honesty is complex because it may mean creating a dishonest character but signalling to the reader that the character isn’t trustworthy (a la The Great Gatsby). In nonfiction, my favorite moments are when the narrator admits something we don’t usually speak to anyone but, perhaps, our closest friends. I find there’s a great strength and freedom in those moments.

It’s not the most complete list of this type I’ve ever seen but it is the most concise and well-defined. You can read the whole thing here, and I’d suggest setting a few minutes of your Friday aside to do so. Enjoy!

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About Jonathan Frater