You are what you eat.
If we didn’t believe this, the Whole 30 program, Clean Eating fad, and Paleo Diets (to name a few) would not be of common interest. Each of these programs strives to teach people how to eat good food. I want to suggest the same can be said of books. What you read shapes your mind as powerfully as what you eat shapes your body. This is why people believe they should read good books.
There are almost 130 million books in print* and we have to decide which are good and which are bad. Before dismissing this an impossible task, I would suggest that we all do it. Who hasn’t decided after reading a novel, or part way through it, that it’s bad, beyond bad, or even, terrible?
Wait—you might be thinking— just because I think a book is bad doesn’t mean it actually is.
I felt the same.
A bad book is not a book you did not enjoy. It is not a book that was difficult to read. Nor is it a book with questionable content. A bad book is the opposite of a good book. In part one of this essay, I explored six qualities of good books. I believe if we reverse those six qualities we will find what makes a book bad.
# 1 : Bad Books are Shallow
Bad books shy away from the depths of truth because it is easier to read and enjoy a shallow book than a true one. A bad book doesn’t force you to view a wider world, but only the world you can handle, skimming along life’s surface. People are not changed unless they are challenged, but bad books offer up no challenges other than turning the page and running your eyes over the words.
#2 : Bad Books are Trendy
Bad books are “in the know,” full of “hot topics,” and “relevant issues.” But they lack the timeless qualities that make stories and characters memorable. Trendiness is short lived. What’s “in” today, will be “out” tomorrow. When a book bows down to trendiness, it falls short of the power to endure—the power that makes it not only memorable, but worth remembering.
#3 : Bad Books are Watered-Down
Simply put, a bad book is poorly written, lacking the rich powerful language that stirs the imagination into growth. Such a book, be it history, fiction, poetry, or instruction manual is easy and accessible in language, but offers little or no reward to the reader. It makes no demands on you and leaves you no more alive than you were when you started.
#4 : Bad Books are Eccentric
Bad books seek to be unconventional and strange, especially in their characters. The weirder or edgier the people, the better. While trying to separate themselves from other books on the shelf, bad books sink into difference for difference sake, declaring their characters as strange and special. But this confuses special with unique, eccentricity with true individuality. Books that populate their pages with weird and wacky characters leave a lonely void in their wake.
#5 : Bad Books are Preachy
A book with an agenda instead of a story, is a bad book. The words whack us over the heads with the author’s sermon of choice. It is an unpleasant experience for everyone, except those who already agree. Bad books trade plot and worldview for a soapbox and an emotional hammer. These books don’t invite their readers to think with the moving questions provoked by a powerful story. Instead, bad books tell you exactly what to think, over and over again.
#6 : Bad Books are Exploitative
The greatest power of a story is the power to ask and answer the big nagging questions that all human beings have. Bad books take human desires and exploit them with cheap experiences. Instead of a moving love story, we get a smattering of loosely connected pornographic sex scenes. Instead of story on the difficult demands of valor and courage, we get scene after scene of gory violence and vulgar language. Instead of an inspiring tale of justice and honor, we get a string of graphic murders or rapes. This does not mean a good book never contains language, sex, or violence of any kind. A good book presents humanity in all its colors and shapes and sizes for the purpose of finding an answer to our questions. A bad books gives nothing more than a titillating experience to satisfy the senses.
There is so much out there that I want to read, I realized I don’t have much time for bad books. As much as I like fanfiction (and I love it for some embarrassing reason,) I try to discipline my reading by remembering that you are what you read. It’s not an easy task.
“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
ps. Read part one of this essay, Good, Better, Best: Six Qualities of a Good Book.
*article on 130 million books in print here