How to judge a book

book_judgeBy its cover, of course. Well, not quite.

Tonight’s post is more about judging a book after you read it. Strictly speaking, there are no bad books. If just one person genuinely likes your story, just for the story itself, not because that person owes you money, then your book is good. And the difference between books lies in the number of people who like that book. That doesn’t necessarily make bestsellers the best books in the world.

The thing is, there isn’t a best book in the world, there isn’t a greatest writer. No one can give you this title, and no one will ever be unanimously considered to be the best writer ever.

Like the Roman saying, “De gustibus non est disputandum.” It’s all a matter of taste. Art is subjective.

Maybe it’s a good idea to compare books. But in that case, it all falls down to which books you’re comparing. If you compare, let’s say, The Great Gatsby with any other book, it will be hard to find another book that will be at least as good. But this is just a biased opinion of mine; maybe you hate  The Great Gatsby and every other novel will feel like a literary masterpiece when compared to it.

Yesterday I was talking with a friend about books and such and we ended up talking about reading as the least favorite pastime of this new century. And well, I said that it all comes down to a lot of factors. If you take someone with little or no education, someone who never even read the mandatory readings in school, and give them Ulysses, they’ll never read another book again. Education plays an important part.

Henry David Thoreau once said that one must read the best books first because otherwise he may not have a chance to read them.

If you read commercial fiction, or, don’t know, thrillers, or simply easy stuff, like Coehlo’s inspirational ramblings, you won’t be very fond of more elaborate works of art. If you like fast-paced detective stories, then you won’t really enjoy reading Anna Karenina. It’s a matter of preferences. That I can cope with. I have nothing against commercial fiction, either. Heaven forbid, I’ve read Dan Brown (I really enjoyed The DaVinci Code), Paulo Coehlo (The Winner Stands Alone was rather good), and other such examples. Hell, I’ve even read Twilight and its mainstream/erotic counterpart Fifty Shades of Grey.

What I don’t like is calling an author or a book the greatest. No, it’s wrong, and it starts useless flame wars on forums, and sometimes even street fights among hipsters. My favorite, that’s the word to use. My favorite author, my favorite book.

But what really makes it easy for me to enjoy such a vast array of books from all kinds of genre, is that I judge books solely on what they wish to achieve. More commercial books want simply to entertain. That’s okay. They sell a lot because they make up for an easy read. The Catcher in the Rye is an example of a great book, which had great commercial success simply because it made for an easy and fast read.

So what I’m really trying to say is this: ask yourself what does the author of this book want to achieve? What is this novel trying to be? If it wants to be a literary masterpiece worthy of a Nobel Prize, and it’s just a convoluted mess of cliches and incessant ramblings, than it fails lamentably.

Let me give you an example. Frederic Beigbeder. He’s one of my favorite authors. Very witty prose, lots of sex, alcohol, drugs, and swearing. Usually he writes in the present tense, which makes for a very fast read. It’s entertaining, and I read it because it’s like going for a dive after you’ve slept on the beach for two hours. It’s exhilarating and fresh, and sometimes it’s damn funny, other times sad. And I read it as it is, because I’m making a compromise here, and it’s not that clear of the author’s intentions anyway. But Beigbeder wants to be one of those great writers, the ones with lots of literary awards (he even set up his own award in France), the ones that get inducted in Academies and are offered prestigious grants. But no one takes him seriously.

Some writers set a ridiculously high level of expectation for their stories. They want them to be something they’re not.

Another example is Fitzgerald. His short stories are cute things, easy to read, easy to digest. They were written mostly because he had to finance his eccentric lifestyle somehow. But in his novels he uses a different style; one that most people wouldn’t consider to be highly marketable. I believe he wanted something different from his novels; he longed after a sort of artistic immortality, some sort of critical success, not just plain, old cash. So judging his novels as aspiring for the same level of success as his stories isn’t going to work out.

Or Stephen King for that matter. He sold, what, 350 million or so books? He’s a good writer, not brilliant, but his stories are impeccable, and he’s, if not the best, one of the top storytellers of this century. His success lies in his ideas, not in the execution. And he appeals to a far broader audience than, let’s say, Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo.

That’s how I judge a book.

***

This post was sponsored by Shelley Williams. Her blog provides short entries use as a study tool. Find the road to a successful journey and friendship with our Lord.

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27 comments on “How to judge a book

  1. Excellent posts. I enjoy your blog entries VERY much, Christian.

    • SoundEagle says:

      SoundEagle agrees with Alethea Eason that your posts are excellent indeed!

      Regarding those readers “calling an author or a book the greatest“, they are probably far too eager, egotistical, self-righteous, misguided, self-centred and/or unscientifically minded to assert certain claims or opinions. For example, some would exclaim during excitement or gratitude that they have the best mum, dad, son, daughter, job, trip or whatever in the world, or that if they can do or achieve something, then anyone can do the same, as discussed in the post at http://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/soundeagle-in-best-moment-award-from-moment-matters/.

    • SoundEagle says:

      Christian, to extend your points in this post: Would you judge non-fiction books in the same way and with the same criteria as you would fiction books?

  2. omtatjuan says:

    I might have to use your Latin saying “De guistibus non est disputinidum” thought I believe it means “taste is subjective”. No Latin scholar here.

  3. Really well done Christian, and I’m glad you mentioned something about writing in the present tense.

    It seems that part of what you’re touching on perhaps has something to do with what is called “layering” in art . . . Mayan art is full of that.

    For me, layering is one of the most enjoyable parts of my art, and I was really surprised to find that I could do something similar with writing. So on the surface, there is the story . . . entertaining on its own . . . then there is what lies beneath, deceptively simple.

    I think you will find that many of your favorite books have that aspect, whether you realize it or not. Thanks for writing this wonderful post. :-)

  4. Piscis says:

    The phrase de gustibus non est disputandum has always bugged me, since its literal meaning (“[It's] not a debate about taste.”) would sooner imply the opposite of what it’s used to mean.

    But as far as the intended sentiment goes, I of course could not agree more!

  5. paradoc-x says:

    I find sometimes the mandatory reading list in schools take the fun out of reading. You are so absorbed in that essay you will need to right. You never really appreciate the books for the art it is. With that said..I read a lot of fantasy these days. I find Brent Weeks, Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Ruthfuss to be among the best In my opinion. Though finding good books is hard…at 20-10 per one. I can’t just randomly get one.

  6. navery101 says:

    Good post…thanks

  7. I usually judge a book on how entertaining it is, how well written it was, and what could and couldn’t have been improved upon. It makes for interesting reviews.

  8. aks87 says:

    Nicely done. you have a very engaging style of writing. makes you want to read more and more. And about the post, so true…

  9. Great post with some great points…..

  10. cheesyplinky says:

    This is very true and informative! Nice post :)

  11. shuchitagoel says:

    “How to judge a book… By its cover of course. Well, not quite.”
    Still laughing. xD
    LOVED this post. Keep it up!

  12. Megan says:

    I usually judge a book by how much it absorbs me. That is my main criteria. A storyline and/or the main character may be interesting, but if the writing is dull, I can’t continue. After that, the storyline has to have promise and so does the main character, but that part comes third in my criteria.

  13. threekats says:

    All books give the reader something, whether it is as big as a new view on the world, or as small as one little fact, or even not to read that author again, whatever, all books supply something!

  14. Some good points, but there are some truly awful books out there – badly written, poorly plotted etc. Being a best seller is not necessarily a good indication, as it appears that a lot of people abandon reading before the end; sales figures show people are accepting the hype, not necessarily finishing the books. And as anyone who has tried to get a book accepted by a mainstream publisher knows, it is about how you present it, it’s about timing, about lots of things. But sometimes it’s about who you are – how many celebrity books have turned out to be real stinkers, even with ghost writers – I offer Pippa Middleton, sister of the future heir to the British throne whose book really sucks.

  15. eclectic X says:

    I burnt a really old book about two years ago, it was probably worth a fortune and I would do it again in a flash. On the surface ‘cover’ you will think that’s crazy action, but I think you may start to agree, that your premature statement: ‘… there are no bad books.’ is not ‘Strictly speaking… ‘ true. It was a factual book about torture instruments and capital punishments. Money isn’t everything, bad books need to be burnt and they do if they come here!

  16. I’m with Megan on this one. A good storyline alone just doesn’t cut it. If the writing doesn’t flow, there is a good chance I won’t finish the book. It’s just too painful. Does a lack of style make a book bad? Maybe not. But with so many books and so little time, one has to constantly set priorities and make choices about which books to read. And as a result some just aren’t as worthwhile as others.

  17. robynbird says:

    Thank you, Christian for using the word favorite vs greatest! As you say, there is no way to determine this greatness…only what readers love, and why. What a wonderful post!

  18. scentfragrance says:

    I agree with judging the book on what the author wants to achieve. Informative and great post!

  19. simon7banks says:

    It’s not necessarily true that if you like fast-paced detective thrillers you won’t like “Anna Karenina”. People can like very different things. If you like wine you won’t necessarily dislike beer. If you like heavy metal rock you may also have a place for Bruckner and Mahler.

    As for “Ulysses”, I agree that if you gave it to a half-educated person to read, the results would be disastrous. But if a good performing reader READ a bit of it aloud to that person, (s)he might love it!

  20. I really like this entry, since I’ve been thinking about this subject recently. Funny that it finds me here.
    I found that books “taste” different depending on what stage in life you’re in, for example if you read something in high school and hate it, you may read it 20 years later and really love it, and vice versa. Some books speak to us because now is the time of our life when we need to hear it, but at a different time we could be completely unmoved by the same book.

  21. Toi Thomas says:

    If only more readers could adopt this practice. I say it all the time, what I like might be different from what you like, it doesn’t make either of us right or wrong.

  22. mg92mx says:

    I really loved this post. It’s hard for people not to fight about what is the best and its important to remember that words like “favorite” are better to use when describing the differences in artworks, especially in the medium of writing. Thanks for the follow! I will be checking your blog often for more ideas and inspiration. You are a great writing in my eyes.

  23. Only just found your blog but have found it incredibly interesting so far! Thanks for the insightful piece!

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