Currently, our daughter lives in NYC and a bit more than a year ago, when my husband and I went to visit her, we decided to drive part way and take the train the remainder. Soon after we got on the train, and had just passed Trenton, NJ, two men got on the train and sat opposite us. They were conversing animatedly in what was clearly not English. I recognize a few languages, but not what they were speaking. Dying of curiosity, I finally asked them where they were from. It turns out they were Swedish businessmen who had been in Trenton doing business with state regulators.
After a very few brief pleasantries, they said—so tell us, what is this thing with Oprah about? This was very soon after James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, had gone on the Oprah show for the second time, this time to defend his highly embellished (that is to say—false) autobiography and to be brow-beaten by Oprah. We answered the Swedish businessmen’s question by making sure they knew who Oprah was, and about her book club. Then tried to fill in the background of this author, his lies, and Oprah’s tongue-lashing of him. Afterwards I thought—how unfortunate that these visitors’ only question about the U.S. was about what had happened on Oprah.
I am very pleased that Oprah has had such an effect on people’s reading habits. However, when I go about deciding what to read, I use a different standard. I select a book through several criteria, and upon completing my reading, I decide how good the read was by a few more criteria.
Here’s what I look for.
First, a great opening. Pick a book up, open it, and read the first line. Does the first line grab you? If so, chances are the book will too.
We all remember “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . .” (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities) or “Call me Ishmael.” (Herman Melville, Moby Dick). Actually, while Moby Dick is a classic, I admit it is tough going at times!
Or how about “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” (Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita)
Once I read an opening line such as these, I decide if I am compelled to read more. If you want to read more opening lines, go here.
Second, as I am reading a work, I look for several things: a great scene; character development; character driven plot not plot driven characters, and a lasting impression.
Here are some examples. Charles Dickens is widely regarded as one of the masters of character development in fiction. But he also has one of the greatest scenes of all time. By great scene, I mean a specific description of an event, a place, or an encounter that is so startling, so riveting that it lingers in the imagination long after the book has been finished and set aside. Dickens’ novel Great Expectations has just such a scene. Pip, the central character, has been hired by Miss Havisham. When Pip makes a visit to her decaying mansion, he enters the dining room to see it set for a feast that will never happen. Miss Havisham, dressed always in a faded yellow wedding gown, was jilted by her fiancé just before the wedding, decades ago. The dining room has all the places set for guests, the wedding cake, and everything festooned in cobwebs. It takes the reader’s breath away—and stays in the mind’s eye forever. That scene alone captures Miss Havisham's entire character.
I can think of many other such scenes, too many to write about here. Think of scenes like the green light at the end of the dock that Gatsby keeps looking at. Or Holden Caufield sadly wondering where the ducks in Central Park go when the winter freezes the pond. Or Atticus Finch wearily leaving the courtroom with all the black townspeople in the balcony silently standing. Suffice it to say, for me, every good book has a great scene in it.
Character development and a character driven plot go hand in hand. The unforgivable sin an author can commit is to manipulate his (her) characters as though they were puppets. Such an author is constantly doing things TO his characters. Good character development means that each character is separate, unique. For example, you can tell good character development if you can put dialogue in a character’s mouth and not have any other character be able to say those words. A character has his or her own unique voice. Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors. Her marvelous novel The Poisonwood Bible has an entire family of characters. She tells the story by rotating among the women in the family, each of them speaking in her own voice. There is a sense that even Kingsolver does not know what these characters will do until they have done it.
The criteria of creating a lasting impression really need no explanation. I have read novels that I forget almost as soon as I read them. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy them—I do. But I do not think of these works as great literature. I enjoy Alexander McCall Smith’s series on the # 1 Ladies Detective Agency, but I am not likely to remember the plots of these works long into the future. But I remember a novel such as Bastard Out of Carolina, and its main character Bone (or Ruth Ann Boatwright). The novel sears with its dark vision, but it is memorable. Or Pride and Prejudice with Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy—they continue to live in my mind long after the novel is finished and closed.
Books are so much a passion of mine that several years ago I began to record each book that I have read. I tried to recreate a list going back into my college days, and I update it with each new book I read. Some of the books on that list may even be ones Oprah recommended, but many more of them are ones that I picked!
So what are you reading?