I recently discovered the only podcast I ever get excited about: “What Should I Read Next?” with Anne Bogel. It’s a literary matchmaking show with lots of fun bookish conversation on the side. Anne asks her guests about three books they love, one book they don’t love, and what they’re currently reading, then makes suggestions on what they should pick up next.
It makes for fascinating literary discussions, and it’s such a great conversation starter in real life. My husband and I have discussed this about our adult reading lives and our childhood reading lives (our picks were somewhat different at different ages and stages). These have been some of my favorite conversations in our relationship to date.
I learned so much about what my husband looks for in a good read. He loves the Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb, Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and a nonfiction work entitled, The Troubador’s Song: The Capture and Ransom of Richard the Lionheart. For him, he likes involved narratives that develop over the years between familiar characters within a richly-imagined culture.
Why on earth he listed Harry Potter as his book he didn’t love, I have no idea, as that series falls perfectly within those parameters. I’m still going after him to read Harry Potter. He stopped at the first book, a few chapters in, after scoffing at chocolate frogs and Bertie’s Every Flavor Beans — an absolutely ridiculous reason to quit a book, if you ask me.
But I’m biased, because the Harry Potter series definitely makes it into the “books I love” category. (I’m re-reading them this summer. They’re even better the second time around!) I adore The Help, by Kathryn Stockett — another perennial re-read. And the latest book that got me excited (and my husband teary) is The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole, by Miranda Cuevas. A book I absolutely hated: Dietland, by Sarai Walker.
The common threads between all of these?
(1) They involve character development within a community — and by that, I don’t just mean that the characters are multi-faceted and grow as the story progresses. They learn about themselves and others through relationship — their biases, their strengths, their passions, their purpose — and we, the reader, learn about both the characters and the world by seeing different perspectives about the same events.
Though I’ve enjoyed plenty well-written novels in the first person tense, I generally don’t fall over myself to read books told in that way, especially if they focus too much on the interior life. The self is just too isolated of a viewpoint to truly understand the world. I’m too much of an interior person myself; exclusively reading another person’s interior thoughts gives me anxiety about human beings. But the self and the individual’s perspective make up part of the world, which is why I love books that combine different first person accounts (like The Help) or have a more omniscient narrator (as in Harry Potter).
(2) The authors slip in crucial plot points without fanfare. It drives me nuts when authors dramatize, over-describe, or frantically signal to pay attention to key moments. Books that do that often have underdeveloped villains and protagonists, as the villains are clearly marked as villains and the protagonists clearly aren’t villains, in a black-and-white sort of way.
I’m outgrowing the mystery genre itself, but I still appreciate plots that have you thinking you’ve figured it out and then dash your confidence in your judgment. J. K. Rowling does this exceptionally well. Re-reading her series, I find more and more information that seems like random fun facts at the moment but turn out to be critical points of information or key turning points in the series.
(3) These books are self-aware, even if their characters are not. I don’t mind reading about experiences and perspectives different from my own, or encountering dark or immoral elements, but I won’t get excited about any book lacking a strong moral core. The book needs to show awareness that the character’s perspective or actions are at least questionable or nuanced, if not downright destructive. Dietland failed on this account for me: it praised a violent feminist revolution and the protagonist’s hardening toward others, things I cannot get behind, things that weren’t exposed as destructive and wrong.
This is another reason why I dislike many first person accounts: I really have to like the narrator to stick with them for a whole book, and in order for me to like the narrator, she needs to be self-aware of her faults. If one of her flaws is that she isn’t self-aware, I won’t enjoy the narrative, no matter how accurate a reflection on the interior life it is. Books that drop hints that it’s okay to laugh at, dislike, be mad at, and get frustrated with even the main characters are my jam.
(4) There’s a foreign piece to the stories that initially peaks my interest — whether that’s a fantastical element, a well-described historical time period (like 1960’s Mississippi), another culture, or a character with a life experience completely different from my own.
(5) These books are wholistic. I was going to say realistic, but that often signals to people “dark, gritty, and hopeless.” While many perspectives fall within that depressing category, I think a wholistic view of life involves the dark, the gritty, the hopeless, and the humorous, the hopeful, and the quirky. Humans are weird and lovable and aggravating all at the same time. I love how Harry Potter, The Help, and The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole all deal with deep, difficult subjects but still make me laugh and inspire me to keep living.
But these aren’t cheap laughs — they have heart and substance, which is why I have a difficult time getting through books by Roald Dahl or Lemony Snickett or the Eddie Dickens trilogy — dark humor and ridiculousness alone give me a literal headache. I need to cry and rejoice and believe as well as laugh.
To clarify, these are the kinds of books that I most often get excited about — that I re-read — that I rip through and then beg all my friends to read them. There are many, many other books that are exciting, well-written, and worth reading — that have changed my life, even — that don’t meet all these criteria. (The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas is an example.) But when I’m looking for a book that I know I’ll enjoy, these are the kinds of books I turn to.
I no longer think in terms of “good” or “bad” books. (Okay, I do think some books are objectively awful.) That’s one thing Anne Bogel talks about often: just because a book isn’t for you doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. This changes throughout life, too. There are books I adored as a kid (and still do for nostalgia’s sake) that wouldn’t exactly fit every criterion above.
And it’s fascinating how two people can love the same book for different reasons. Many people love Harry Potter, for instance, but wouldn’t be remotely interested in reading the other two books I love. Myself, I don’t love Harry Potter for the fantasy genre, per se; there are many fantasy books that aren’t for me because they fail to meet the criteria I listed above.
If you enjoy the same kinds of books I do, check out some of my other recent favorites:
Hello, Universe, by Erin Entrada Kelly
Wonder, by R. J. Palacio
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid
The Wizards of Once, by Cressida Cowell
The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberley Brubaker Bradley
When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead
The Inquisitor’s Tale, by Adam Gidwitz
Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng
Emma, by Jane Austen
What are three books you love and one you don’t? Have you identified the common threads between them? Do you have any suggestions for what I should read next?
P.S. Two of my favorite WSIRN episodes: an interview with Jen Hatmaker on “When your reading life is nothing like people expect” and a chat with Patience Randle about “The quest for the perfect coffeeshop read.”