What I like in a book…

In a couple of previous posts, I’ve gone a little bit into what I like about the music I listen to and the reasons for the music that I listen to (they can be found in the ‘Music’ category above) but I haven’t really done anything like that for books. That seems a bit out of balance to me, especially seeing as if I was given a choice between only books or only music I would choose books. Yes, I’m one of those people who like the whole feel of a book, not just the words inside. This isn’t always great for my bank balance, because the nicest looking books tend to be large hardbacks that cost a fortune compared to their paperback counterparts. In any case, the ‘bookishness’ of a book isn’t the only thing that makes me like a book or not. Just as a side note, by typing this I’ve discovered that ‘bookishness’ is a recognised word.

As lovely as some books can look, the content is clearly more important (never judge a book by its cover and all that). I always find it hard to pin down what exactly it is that makes a book one of my favourite, but I can think of a few factors that I can talk about briefly over the next couple of paragraphs. The first factor, and probably the most important, is the emotional ‘punch’ of a book. I don’t necessarily mean a book that makes me happy or sad (though that is part of it), I’m referring more to books like ‘Cities of the Plain’ by Cormac McCarthy and ‘Matterhorn’ by Karl Marlantes that seem to suck you in and spit you out again, leaving you in a strange sort of daze after turning the last page. Another word that could describe books like those two in particular would be devastating. For me, the absolute best books are devastating, but they’re also profoundly beautiful.

All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.

–  Cormac McCarthy

In terms of genre, though I like books from across the thematic spectrum, I have a particular love for fantasy that I suppose has grown out of reading books such as Elizabeth Kay’s ‘Divide’ trilogy and classics such as ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ when I was younger. As such, I am the proud owner of twenty-something ‘Shannara’ books by Terry Brooks and several other sets and half-completed sets from fantasy writers as varied as J. R. R. Tolkien, Tom Lloyd and Stuart Hill. I am aware that fantasy is often looked down on by literary critics and the like, but this has never bothered me. I love them for their raw sense of adventure, mystery and strange happenings. I love the variety of characters that spring up, some that you love, some that you love to hate. One of the things that I love so much about the ‘Shannara’ series is the way that Brooks involves you with the characters’ thought processes and lives in great depth, despite narrating in the third person. It’ll be a sad day for me when there are no longer any new ‘Shannara’ books to look forward to.

It would be appropriate for me to finish this post by saying what makes a good ending, in my opinion. I must confess, I’m a sucker for a good happy ending (if it’s not too forced), but I don’t require a happy ending to enjoy the book. Through studying tragedies in English and Classics, I came to realise that some of the most profound and powerful ending are those that leave the reader with a sense of longing for what has been lost. I find it extremely easy to lose myself in the minds and lives of the characters when I read books, so if one of those characters dies or leaves or whatever at the end, that affects me on an emotional level and I have come to realise as I have read more and more books that the emotional feeling I have for these characters is the hallmark of a good book, in my opinion. I don’t care what critics have said about a book (a lot of it is snobbery anyway, and that’s from my English teacher!), what matters to me is whether the author of the book has made me care about what happens. If they haven’t, then I’m sorry, but the book’s a failure in my eyes, however, if the author has drawn me into a book and convinced me that what happens to characters matters, then there’s a good chance that I’ll love that book.

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