BOOK THOUGHTS ON THURSDAY | WHAT MAKES OR BREAKS A BOOK?

Book Thoughts On Thursday

 

The world of books is never boring. Every week (well, most weeks) 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!

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There are a lot of different parts to any story. All are important, all contribute to the overall experience of reading.

This has been on my mind this week in particular, because I read a book that forced me to consider how the different elements form my impression of a book, and how a perceived weakness in one of them affects how much I enjoy or value the book.

The book I’m referring to is Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. If you haven’t heard of it, this is a humble book in size, but its format requires more time from the reader than you might expect.

It’s the story of a marriage – more specifically, it’s the story of an unfaithful marriage. In this respect, it’s not an original premise. But the format in which the story is told – now that is original.

It’s told from the first person perspective of the wife, and so we get to know her idiosyncrasies very well. We see how her mind works, we bear witness to her emotions as she deals with the impossible situation she finds herself in. But even though we’re in her head, she still feels distant. It’s written in a very flowing narrative style that can at times be a bit confusing, but is also dynamic and interesting.

In summary this is a book that has:

  • A slightly boring and decidedly unoriginal plot
  • Characters that don’t elicit as much sympathy as they could have
  • A format that is beautifully experimental and that colours the narrative
  • A stream-of-consciousness style that draws parallels between thoughts and plot points

Some of these things work, others fall flat. So how  does each of these factors weigh in on the reader’s overall impression of the book? Does the somewhat clichéd plot ruin it? Does the style make it overly confusing?

Obviously this is something that will be subjective – every reader has their preferences and interests that impact their reading experience. But for me, I had a hard time deciding what to think of this book because my dislike of certain elements was contradicted by my enjoyment of others. I had to think about whether I needed a more interesting plot, or whether I could decide the book was great without it. I had to decide if my lack of feeling for the characters was a deal breaker or if I was okay with being a passive observer.

To be totally honest, I’m still mulling it over. But one thing I am sure of, that this book confirmed, is that I don’t need every area of a book to be strong in order for me to consider it a great book or in order to recommend and enjoy it. That said, it’s very rare for me to give a book 10/10 if it isn’t at least somewhat strong in all areas (and exceptional in one or two).

This book is one that probably shouldn’t work, but does. The style and format make a basic plot interesting and original, and the simplicity of the plot allows for a complex style that otherwise would have confused it. I think the combination of factors that played into this book were in balance, and that the weaker aspects were compensated for by the stronger.

It’s still not my favourite book. The fact that I didn’t connect to the characters mattered to me, there were parts where I found myself confused, and I’ve got my own personal preferences that made this a harder read for me. But it still got a respectable 7/10 rating from me, and at least two of those stars were for the format and style – things which saved the book from mediocrity.

So my conclusion is that no, I don’t need every element to be amazing, or even very good. I can criticize some areas of a book and still consider it good. But I’m curious to know what you all think.

Do you find that you’re flexible on the quality of all areas of a book? Or are you okay with strong in some areas and weak in others? Are there deal-breakers – as in you’ll be flexible on writing style but if you don’t like the characters the book is dead to you? Share your thoughts in the comments!

(For further reading on Dept. of Speculation that touches on this issue, check out The Socratic Salon’s recent post.)

4 thoughts on “BOOK THOUGHTS ON THURSDAY | WHAT MAKES OR BREAKS A BOOK?

  1. M.

    EXACTLY. I completely agree. And I've been known to go back and adjust my Goodreads rating, even years after reading a book, if I settle into feeling that the lasting impression changes my opinion of a book. I also think that for some of the best books it does take some time to digest. I still haven't decided whether this book is a 3- or 4-star read for me!

    Reply
  2. M.

    Thank you! I'm planning to do a fuller review of the book as well, this was more using it as a case study for a larger discussion about how the elements of any book affect its readers. I don't know if everyone would feel the same way about the characters in this book as I did – but if you're big on characters, you might find it challenging. I did read the Socratic Salon post – loved it!

    Reply
  3. Julianne (Outlandish Lit)

    That's kind of how I feel about A Little Life. Like it was so extraordinary in creating a portrait of these characters and eliciting an emotional response, that I had to give it 5 stars even though it had some flaws (like a lack of well rounded female characters). I think, for me, if a book sticks with me long after reading it and I keep recommending it, that's what makes it a “five star” book. I'll even go back and change goodreads ratings to 5 if objectively I thought something was like 4 stars due to some flaws, but I ended up still raving about it months later.

    Reply
  4. Lisa

    This is the best review I've seen on this book yet! You summed it up well! I think overall it would get a lower rating from me though. I really need to connect with the characters to truly enjoy a book and give it a solid rating. If you haven't checked out the discussion about this book on The Socrates Salon yet, you should. I found it interesting how many different opinions there were on this book!

    Reply

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