Essays

Good, Better, Best: Six Qualities of a Good Book

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Writers should read good books. Before nodding my head and moving on with my life, I began to consider the logical conclusion to that statement. If there is such a thing as a “good book,” then there must be such a thing as a bad book. My American training often balks at such a statement.

I don’t really mean “bad” do I? I mean “not as good,” right?

But I was wrong. I am convinced there are good books, and I am convinced there are bad books. In part two of this essay, I’ll explore what makes a bad book.

Okay, —I asked myself—so what makes a good book?

While reading Gladys Hunt, author of two useful books about reading for children, and I stumbled upon her six qualities that set good books apart from bad ones. (She writes an entire chapter on these qualities.)

#1 : “Good Books show the realities of life” or

Good Books are True.

A book that unlocks the door of reality and flings it wide is a good book. It plants ideas, experiences, and truth into the heart and mind of the reader. You cannot help but sit back and know that what you have read, even if it is fantasy, is true. Like a clarion horn ringing out a note over a murmuring crowd, the book startles new life inside us.

#2 : “Good Books have an enduring theme” or

Good Books are Remembered.

Every good book has something it is trying to say, the theme behind the words. Books that live beyond their writing—books that last from generation to generation—do so because they possess a life of their own, a theme that we identify with, experience, and remember. There are thousands of books being written that no one will ever remember. Good books stand up to the test of generations, undaunted.

#3 : “Good Books have well-used language” or

Good Books are Alive.

Worthy writing engages its readers. Words carefully crafted into compelling sentences nudge our imagination into action, making the world between the covers come alive. We want it to be real, and while we read, it is real. We are willingly (and sometimes unwillingly) held spell-bound by good writing.

#4 : Good Books have memorable characters” or

Good Books are Old Friends.

A good book introduces us to a world populated by people. Its characters are fashioned and formed to the degree that we come to know them by the end of the book. As we explore through good books, we gather up a cast of new friends, people or animals or fairies etc. that we have met, and loved (and sometimes hated.) A good book is a world of characters that change us.

#5 : “Good Books have a well-conceived plot” or

Good Books are Storytellers.

This point seems a little obvious, but a good book must tell a story; not mere facts, not a jumble of thoughts, not scattered philosophical observations. All the previous points I’ve mentioned (characters, language, strong theme, etc) may be present in a book, but they cannot form a comprehensive whole without a story.  We expect a good story, and without it, we walk away disappointed, knowing it could have been more.

#6 : “Good Books unveil the human experience” or

Good Books are Maps.

Sometimes we open a book for a fun time, sometimes for an escape, but often we open a book looking for an answer. It’s not something we think about, or often acknowledge openly, but good books give us answers to deep questions. Sometimes they are questions we can’t understand because they are too big; questions about death, pain, love, community, purpose, belonging, doubts, sadness. A good book helps us navigate our own lives through the experiences and stories of others.

Growing up I read a lot of good books, and many bad books. I never knew these six qualities but when I read Gladys Hunt’s chapter on good books, I found words for what I already knew to be true.

“Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.”

-Henry David Thoreau

-rj

PS. Stay tuned for part two of this essay, Bad, Worse, Worst: Six Qualities of a Bad Book

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4 thoughts on “Good, Better, Best: Six Qualities of a Good Book

  1. Would you say these six qualities apply to all books, or only/primarily to narrative books? Besides fiction, biography, and history, I also have many memorable and, I think, excellent books from my childhood as well as adulthood that might be described as “informative nonfiction.” Specific examples from my childhood include the books Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook ( http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/540113.Where_There_Is_No_Doctor ), The Stars: A New Way to See Them ( https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/204382.The_Stars ), and the Joy of Cooking ( https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/327847.The_Joy_of_Cooking ).

    These books lack a plot (quality 5) and characters (quality 4), at least in any obvious sense. Yet I think they’re good books, and they’ve certainly each stood the test of time.

    Would you suggest a different list of qualities for such books, or see a way that the original list of qualities applies to these types of books? Or would you say that these types of books just aren’t good books since they don’t meet the list criteria?

    (I’m not asking this to be pedantic or nit-picky. It’s a question I immediately wondered about when I read qualities 4 and 5 in the list, and I’d like to know your thoughts on this topic.)

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    1. Books that do not have Narratives do not have the features of “Plot” or “Characters.” Thus, The criteria would no longer apply. I agree that the qualities of good Nonfiction will be different and are a worthy subject to look into. I don’t mind the questions at all!

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