I recently saw a Top 100 Books list put out by teachers–books the teachers thought we all should have read. Even with my English major in college and years of teaching high school literature, I’d still only read 37 of them. Still, it was a mostly good list. They’d removed a few classics I thought were sacred (Huckleberry Finn and The Scarlet Letter) and added in modern favorites like Hunger Games and the Twilight Series (really?!). The whole thing got me thinking about what makes a book worth keeping around decades–or even centuries later.
I’ve read John Christopher’s The White Mountains trilogy four times. The same parts of the story get my adrenaline pumping every time, and I still choke up at the sad bit near the end. How is that? How can a story be worth reading that many times, and how can it still evoke strong emotions? What makes a book so re-readable?
I conducted a very informal survey on the matter, but found some striking consistencies. People from all walks of life and literary tastes basically wanted the same four things from a book. If the book lacked them, it would be garage sale fodder by spring.
Characters we can relate to.
There has to be at least one character that we really care about, really want to see succeed. And beyond that, we want characters that are real enough that we feel we could be friends with them. When characters are genuine, our hearts hold them dear, and we want to visit them again and again.
Whether it’s fantasy, sci-fi, or historical fiction, the book has to take us to another paradigm. We want to be able to “see” vivid pictures that inspire wonder and thought. We want to start thinking, “What if…” Stories that do that successfully keep our minds engaged long after the book is closed.
That’s the lit major way of saying we want the world that is created in the book to be consistent with itself. Once we’ve accepted the parameters of the story and the willing suspension of disbelief is in place, we want the story to make sense. In the world of Narnia, for example, we can believe the talking animals, but if the Reepicheep suddenly pulled out an Uzi to blow away the White Witch, it just wouldn’t feel right. Books with internal integrity feel more like a true memory, not just a passing tale.
We want the story to be more than a story. We want to come away a better person. We don’t even mind getting the same lesson over again when we re-read because it is the kind of lesson that may take years to understand and incorporate. In short, we want the book to change us.
All of these rolled together speak to a need for a new reality (the one in the book) that intersects and impacts our own reality in some way–emotionally, spiritually, mentally. For writers and storytellers, it requires us to live in the worlds we create, much like an actor getting in character for a role in a play or movie. We have to believe in it as much as our leads do, and that authenticity has to come alive on the page (or the stage, or the screen).
This is even true of satire and comedy. I think of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” in which he very candidly puts forth the proposition that, in order to deal with the surplus population of street urchins and the chronically poor, elite restaurants should take up the practice of serving roasted infants as delicacies. He makes such a reasoned case for gourmet cannibalism that, except for the sheer horror of it, one might be persuaded. Of course, the whole thing is a farce, but Swift had to think like an educated barbarian in order to pull it off. If he had wavered in his apparent convictions or tempered his bravado, it would have been ugly and distasteful. As it was, he makes me laugh every time with the brilliant parody.
The more fantastically ridiculous a story is, the more we have to step inside of it to make it work. In the world of cinema, I would point to Amy Adams’ performance in the movie Enchanted. She and James Marsden so completely throw themselves into the personae of Disney-style royalty that, even when surrounded by cynical New Yorkers, they are believable. If they had held back and been self-conscious about the silliness of their actions, it would have failed as humor. As it was, they were spot on and absolutely delightful and endearing.
The same goes, of course, for authors of horror, romance, or fantasy–any genre, really. They have to mean it. And when writers mean it, their story becomes real, and that new reality reaches the reader and captures her heart over and over again.