The world of books is never boring. Every Thursday (well, almost every Thursday) I’ll discuss a different topic related to books, often inspired by or in response to what’s going on in the online book community (or something I’ve seen another blogger talk about). I call this Book Thoughts on Thursday. Feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments, or even write your own post on the topic and share the link with me!
I just started a new book, one called The Girl On the Train
by Paula Hawkins. I haven’t finished it yet, so I haven’t written a proper review, but reading it has made me think a lot about what makes a book “good,” and what makes a book fun to read. Which are not, necessarily, the same thing.
First of all, let me tell you just a tiny bit about the book. It’s a psychological thriller, though not straight off the bat. When you first start reading, you spend a lot of time getting to know the main character – the girl on the train. Her name is Rachel, and she’s a mess. Her life is in ruins, she has a lot of personal problems she can’t seem to get sorted, and her head is consequently a pretty dismal place. Reading this book isn’t exactly fun – there have been moments where I’ve had to put the book aside and do something else because I can feel it dragging my whole mood down into a dark place.
And yet, from pretty much the beginning, I was transfixed. Despite (and at times because of) the dark vibe created by the character and context, it’s a book that comes to life as you’re reading it. And the writing is just beautiful.
As I’ve been reading, I keep circling back to one thought: How do we separate the way a book makes us feel from our critique of it as a piece of writing?
Usually it’s not hard for me to sit back and think about whether I thought a book was worthy of praise and a high rating – well written, carefully plotted, entertaining, and consistent. Whether the book was sad or happy doesn’t matter. That’s something different. Some of the books I recommend most frequently and consider to have the highest literary value of any I’ve read have been sad or difficult to read.
But every once in a while I come across a book whose content overwhelms me as I’m reading – usually because in some way it defied my expectations. When it comes time to consider whether I think it was worthy of a high rating and to decide whether to recommend it, I have to remind myself that just because I found it a bit depressing or didn’t like the characters doesn’t mean it wasn’t good. In fact, it often means the opposite.
Another book that exemplifies this is Gone Girl. I had a really hard time assessing that book. I had to set it aside to give it some time and distance before I could sit down and write about it. It’s unquestionably a well-executed book. Great plot twists, engaging, suspenseful and well-paced. But rarely have I disliked a set of characters so intensely. Reading it, after about the first quarter of the book, became more and more difficult. I was anxious to know what happened, and yet I intensely disliked inhabiting the heads of the narrators.
And yet… even after a couple of months, I’m still haunted by it. It’s one that I think will stick with me because, dammit, it was good.
So I’m wondering – do you ever struggle to fairly assess a book because of how it made you feel or because of your emotions towards the characters? Have you ever given a book a lower rating because of these factors? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!