Friday Fun — What makes a good book?

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

This week’s question is part of a series based on 100th episode (“Ask The Readers Anything” ) of the UK-based podcast, The Readers. We thought it would be interesting (and fun!) to answer these questions from the perspective of writers who also (obviously) love to read. 

QUESTION: What, in your opinion, makes a book a good book? (Loaded question, we know, but let’s just dive right in, shall we?)

Lisa J. JacksonLisa J. Jackson: For me, it’s when my attention is caught and held. When I’m immediately drawn into the story — it doesn’t matter if it’s the characters, setting, or plot, but as long as something draws me in and has me curious enough to read the next paragraph and the next and the next, then it’s a good book. I just read a book last weekend, Boiled Over, by Barbara Ross. Sadly I started it late at night and had to stop reading at some point to sleep, but I finished it first-thing the next morning. It’s a 300+ page cozy mystery, but I was drawn in by the setting (Maine seacoast) and the characters and I couldn’t stop turning the pages. It brought back great memories of my own Maine summer vacations on the beach. I loved it! You can read my review of it here, if you like. This is the 2nd in a series. I need to go back and read the first now!

I haven’t found a perfect description for a good book – and what I think is good you might not like because we have different preferences. So, this loaded question is only going to offer so much for answers!

Susan Nye: The books that I love all have one thing in common, wonderful writing.

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon: This is a tough question. The books I love are the books that stay with me–the ones I think about after I have finished them. Books that make me think about something in a different way, or recognize something I didn’t before. I think the story has to be great, but that doesn’t mean a lot has to happen. One of the books that comes to mind is Of Human Bondage, by Somerset Maugham. I read it years ago but it’s still with me. The transformation of the main character is what really stayed with me, I think. I won’t spoil it if you haven’t read it, but it’s a book I had to force myself to keep reading in the beginning but became a book I couldn’t put down. Another favorite, I Know This Much is True, by Wally Lamb, is the same. I slogged through the beginning but I’m still thinking about it (and the main character) years later. That, to me, is the test that has to be passed to be a good book. (The Corrections just came to mind. Can’t say I loved the book but based on my reaction to it, it’s a great book–to me.)


headshot_jw_thumbnailJamie Wallace: This IS a loaded question and one that can only be answered in the context of defining personal preferences. I agree with Lisa that a good book has to grab you and refuse to let go. I also agree with Susan that it must have wonderful writing. That point may be debatable based on the legion fans of hugely successful books that aren’t that well written, but in those cases I would argue that it’s the story – not the writing – that deserves the credit. I also agree with Diane that a good book will stay with you long after you’ve turned the final page.

But, if I’m going to get down to brass tacks and define what makes a book a good book for ME, I’ll repeat the random list of attributes that I originally shared in my Weekend Edition post on book lust:

  • An Element of Magical Realism Though my younger self was most interested in literary fantasy and quality SciFi, grown-up me has developed a taste for stories that are based in this world but have elements of the magical.
  • An Element of Mystery Though I don’t read many books in the mystery genre, I do love a bit of mystery. Many of my favorite stories include a puzzle that needs solving – an unidentified character, an unknown origin story, a mysterious artifact.
  • A Poetic Voice Though I know little of poetry proper, I love when a book includes poetic prose and/or unorthodox structure. Though some people dislike a disjointed flow, I love finding and falling into the rhythm of a unique narration style.
  • A Female Protagonist Though I have loved plenty of books with male protagonists as well, I am particularly smitten with stories that tell the tale of a girl or woman. I suppose this is because I can relate to the story more easily.
  • True Transformation Though I am not immune to the allure of action and comedy, my favorite stories are the ones about the evolution of a heart, a mind, or a soul. I’m a sucker for a good before and after.
  • A Satisfying but Open Ending While I like closure as much as the next reader, my favorite endings also leave me with a sense of what might come after the words “The End.” It’s not so much about hoping for a sequel as it is about feeling like the story and its characters live on beyond the pages I’ve read.


12 thoughts on “Friday Fun — What makes a good book?

  1. I agree it is a loaded question, because good is a subjective quality. However, what makes a book popular and connects with a broad audience? I believe from a “male’s” perspective it captures the imagination of the reader quickly, there is a connection such as a good mystery or suspenseful threat or challenge at stake. There is plenty of action that leads to more action, written so that it is like a movie being played out in the mind’s eye. The story allows for the reader to feel like he or she is a part of the story. The quest can be for truth, love, honor or revenge, but there is a quest that drives the action and character development and their relationships. A recognizable and memorable protagonist and antagonist drives the story. (Oh yeah, written as if story painted on a canvas with words and descriptions that offer color and depth!)

    OKAY, men may have a different hook for a good (popular) read! Just thought I would represent our perspective.

    • Yes, the male and female perspective are different. The female seems to like books that engage them in a kind of virtual sex flirt. In males it work the magazines in the same way. The rest I really would like to know but they don’t like to talk about it.

  2. Several questions: what is a good book? In what context is a book good? It is also a question of time? One that is good now, in another time it doesn’t make any sense, even when you are writing it. And its good for what? To make money or to be useful, to help others, to tell a small-important history?

    In my case, my books are not more then 100. 90% of them are with me forever, 50% I will read again, the others don’t make any sense right now.

    Perhaps the good books are those that survive to time, that just after being written, they get same legs and walk by themselves surviving and helping others.

    Well, I don’t really know(sorry about my English).

  3. It IS a tough question. I would say..good writing is a must. Also I would like strong characters with strong personality types. Writing that makes fictional characters feel real is what makes me go back to the book again and again.

  4. For a book to grab me, I need it to be an easy read. I don’t mean one for dummies, but one that has simple, clear and elegant sentences. And that includes one of the rules I personally follow – using the first or second word that comes to mind when constructing a sentence. Not the third one. I don’t want to be spending ages on one book that will make me flick through the dictionary on every page. It also needs to have a great flow and a strong plot. All in all, it should be simple, funny, original and intriguing. Simple, right? 🙂

  5. I’m definitely of the opinion that what makes a good book for each person will evolve as they do. As a child I had to have some kind of fantasy or sci-fi element, as a teen a sought out watered down chick-lit (think Jaquelline Wilson’s ‘Girls Out Late’), then I turned to more adult fantasy and sci-fi but also began to enjoy classics and postcolonial writing whilst at university. Now I’m seeking out greater realism in character-focused narratives. All in all though, I think our individual needs dictate taste – whether you’re looking for escapsm vs being brought back down to earth by a narrative.

    • I”m experiencing a similar kind of lifelong evolution when it comes to my reading preferences. I still have a special place in my heart for the books I loved as a kid and a young adult, but my tastes have definitely changed. Kind of interesting.

  6. Diane~
    Wally Lamb really got me too with I Know this Much…I walked around for days saying “ugh, I have all of this in my head, what do I do with it?” I really felt like I should lobby for something, or crusade for better mental health care or…I just didn’t know what! I think the best books do hang with you after you read them, but they’re also the ones you can’t put down. Until the last few pages, when I find myself wanting to slow down and savor a story that I really will miss indulging in once I see “The End.”
    Kassie aka “Mom”

  7. I think it goes without saying that good writing is essential. “The Corrections” is a good example of excellent writing, writing that just scoops you along, but as Diane MacKinnon said, “Can’t say I loved the book…” I have to agree, but my reasons may be quite different. At the end I was left with a “so what?” feeling, even though I really adored the writing style and couldn’t put it down. I still say it’s worth reading for its cleverness. I think my writing improved after reading that book!

    But what makes a book stand the test of time? One with a strong message. Many books are wonderfully written and worth reading, but the ones that stick have a coherent outlook with an underlying message, one that reflects reality.

  8. It’s been said that the first quality of artistic genius is a distinctive style, and style is what draws me in and holds me. How can a person possibly read the beginning of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms without being mesmerized? I can read a book and remember almost nothing about the plot, and certainly not the characters names, but the style never leaves me. Does anybody else feel so strongly about style?

  9. This question strikes me well, because I actually open my own novel with an answer to this very question. And I identify a good book as defined by the mark it leaves on its reader–not by its good characters, or good style, or good setting, or good message, none of that. Now, a good book is far more likely to have good characters and tone and so on, but what truly makes it good is that, when its final page is read and it is returned to the shelf, it still remains in the hands and on the hearts of its reader. It leaves a mark; it changes who they are.

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