“Hmm, this looks like a good book,” I hear the high pitched voice Chris from another aisle at the Boulder Public Library. “Yeah,” comes an audible nod of acceptance.
But how do you know? How can you tell?
I remember trolling the library in Brookline every week, wandering to the front with a stack of novels and books I had collected. I would burn through them, lounging on the couch in the living room, dragging them into the grassy back yard, hiding away beneath sheets late at night. I generally could read three books a week, most of them with wizards or warriors gracing the cover. In retrospect, few of them can be considered truly good books, but I guess that’s the downside to judging a book by its cover.
My friend and fellow teacher Mr. Newman and I have been discussing what makes a work worth reading. In part, we’ve discussed what makes it matter or what makes it meaningful. In whole, we’ve chatted about what makes something great or memorable. While our lists of great or important books overlap, they aren’t identical. Yet our rationales and criteria for how we choose those books are extremely similar even with different results.
Books matter when enough people read them. They gain meaning through interacting with each reader, providing different connections to their lives and/or the other texts they’ve experienced. They’re great when they provide multiple meanings to different people and remain fresh enough in our minds to have conversations about them days, weeks, months, or even years later.
It’s especially interesting to note that none of these criteria directly have to do with authorial intent or the content of the book. Instead, the act of reading is experiential, and, in the case of a good book, affirmational. Books, like all interactions we regard positively, need to make us feel intelligent and a part of something. We need to reach the other side feeling like we’ve learned something, whether it’s as complex as the nature of the universe or as simple as a few facts about a character. By the end, we need to feel as if we’ve come away a better person, even if what is better is knowing to avoid other books by the same author or on the same topic. Books connect us not simply to the content within, but to the people around us. Every time we read a book, we join a non-exclusive club of people who have read that book. We open the door to conversations and discussions, to finding our fellow club members. They bridge a divide and offer us the ability to talk beyond our own experience and to connect the experience of others, whether true or fictional, to our own lived experiences.
I can’t see these things in a cover. Even with the blurb on the back or the jacket.
I miss being able to pick up a book and, simply on first impression, believe it’ll be the best thing ever. Hyperbole aside, I continue to be impressed and surprised by all the new things I’m reading. I’m working on turning the cynicism of college back into the excitement of my youth.
Soon, I hope I can set the example by picking up every book and saying or thinking, “Hmm, this looks like a good book.”