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February was an awful reading month for me. I only finished one book, though I started several. There were books I was excited to read, but once I started, I quickly realized they weren’t for me. This situation got me thinking: what do I look for in a book? What elements pique my interest enough for me to want to read something? I thought about those questions, and today I’m sharing my answers.
Element #1: Good Writing
My #1 criteria for a book is good writing. I want beautiful prose and sentences that give me pause. I want writing that moves and surprises me.
When I read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, it was easy to tell from the language that Vuong is also a poet. Normal People by Sally Rooney has excellent dialogue, which makes it feel like she eavesdropped on two people trying to navigate their relationship and wrote a book about it. When I read Leslie Jamison’s newest essay collection, Let It Scream, Let It Burn, I was reminded of how lovely her writing is and why I keep picking up her work. No other essayist makes me laugh like David Sedaris does. He combines hilarity and heartbreak like no one else, especially in his latest, Calypso. The profound and heartfelt letters from a preacher to his young son in Gilead by Marilynne Robinson have stayed with me for years.
Good writing makes for books that get inside my head and stay there.
Element #2: Well-Developed Characters
When I read fiction, I consider characters before plot. I’ve read several books that have a great plot yet zero character development. No matter how entertaining those books might have been, they were ultimately unsatisfying.
After reading My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, I felt like I knew the unnamed narrator because Moshfegh described her emotional crisis so intimately. I enjoyed Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid because the ever-so-complicated Alix Chamberlain seems like a real blogger, someone whose Instagram I might follow because her life looks perfect on the outside. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai is a novel that’s precious to me because of Yale and Fiona, Makkai’s two protagonists whose lives intertwine over the years. I remember sitting in my car listening to This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel and feeling such concern for Rosie and Penn as they figure out the best way to support their child. When I heard that Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng was being turned in a TV show, I was thrilled because Elena and Mia captivate me because of their different worldviews, and I want to know them even better.
I’m fascinated by people (even fictional ones) and want nothing more than to learn what makes someone who they are. Good character development gives me that and is one of the many reasons I adore books.
Element #3: A Vivid Setting
When I read, I like to feel immersed in a text. I want to see the world inside the pages clearly in my mind.
That experience is precisely what I got when I read In the Woods by Tana French. I felt the eeriness of the dark, creepy woods and the chilly Irish air. I felt the stifling Australian heat when I read Jane Harper’s The Dry. I imagined I was in the middle of a busy and loud NYC restaurant as I made my way through Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler. Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 is mostly set on a luxury cruise, and the confined spaces make the tension even higher. Though I don’t like snow in real life, I enjoyed it in The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley because it stranded a group of friends at a remote lodge, provoking excellent drama found in the best thrillers.
I love plenty of books that don’t have a vivid setting, but I always appreciate it when I find a book that takes me someplace new and uses setting to add to the story.
Element #4: Knowledge
When I was a child, my mom tells me I’d come up to her and ask, “Mommy, will you learn me?” I’ve always loved learning, and when I want to know about something, my first instinct is to read.
I wanted to know more about America’s opioid epidemic, and Beth Macy’s Dopesick certainly delivered. I finished that book with a mix of sadness and anger because of what I’d learned. Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick shines a light on what it’s like in North Korea, a place unlike any other in the world. One of my favorite things to learn about is presidential history, and The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy is one of the best books I’ve read on the subject. Their stories about the relationships between presidents were riveting and inspiring. I think Missoula by Jon Krakauer should be required reading for anyone about to go off to college because his reporting on rape and justice on a college campus is an essential addition to the conversation about sexual assault. I work with teenagers every day, so I picked up American Girls by Nancy Jo Sales, hoping to learn more about their social media habits. What I found out shocked me.
Thanks to the internet and the spread of media, learning is easier now than it’s ever been. For me, though, nothing beats a book when I want to know more about a topic.
Element #5: Entertainment
Though I’m passionate about learning, sometimes I want a book that will just entertain me.
Gillan Flynn’s Gone Girl was the book that hooked me on mysteries and thrillers because I couldn’t put it down. I raced through Lisa Jewell’s Watching You, wholly wrapped up in the lives of the people whose lives intersected in the upscale English neighborhood she created. Though it’s long, I devoured Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty in one sitting. I did the same with Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Few things entertain me the way humor does, and Scaachi Koul’s One Day We’ll All Be Dead, and None of This Will Matter is a hilarious and thoughtful essay collection.
My perfect reading life consists of a balance between books that teach and entertain me. The best books do both.
Element #6: Creativity
I’ve read a lot over the years, so it’s a particular delight when I find a book that offers originality.
Providence by Caroline Kepnes was a mixture of horror, mystery, thriller, and romance, all coming together to create a novel that I love and have recommended. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is a combination of essay and poetry, which perfectly captures the racial tension in modern America. Twenty-One Truths About Love by Matthew Dicks is a novel written in the form of lists. I was skeptical, yet ended up charmed and surprised by the book’s depth. Something I love almost as much as a good book is a good podcast, so when I heard that Sadie by Courtney Summers is partially written as a podcast, I was sold. Marisha Pessl’s Night Film (which I’ve referenced about 4782 times on this blog) includes photos, articles, and screenshots, making an already creepy novel about ten times spookier.
No matter what form creativity takes, I always appreciate and remember it.
Element #7: Honesty
Like most people, I just want Brené Brown to be proud of me. I value vulnerability, which is only possible with honesty.
In The Wondering Years, Knox McCoy talks about his evolving faith and the role pop culture plays in it in a way that makes sense to me, someone who grew up in an evangelical world just like he did. Journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey helped bring about the #MeToo movement because of their courageous reporting and the frankness of the women who shared their stories with them. Their book She Said is a must-read. Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up encapsulates the messiness and confusion adulthood can bring, something we don’t talk about nearly enough. Kristi Coulter’s Nothing Good Can Come from This is a funny and smart story of giving up alcohol in a world that seems to be obsessed with it. When I read Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs, a blunt memoir about growing up with Steve Jobs as a father, I realized how many assumptions I made about what it would be like to grow up around so much wealth and prestige.
All of these books taught me something thanks to the honesty of their authors who faced the chaos of life head-on and then wrote it down.
What about you? What elements do you look for in books? What is it that makes you love your favorite book? I’ve love to hear your thoughts!