My Books. My Life.

"Let us read and let us dance – two amusements that will never do any harm to the world." ~Voltaire~

Books and the Good Life: What makes a book good? April 5, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michelle @ 9:46 pm

The world may be full of fourth-rate writers
but it's also full of fourth-rate readers.
~ Stan Barstow ~


makes a book good?  Why do we value some
books or genres over others?  As I said
earlier, I will be the first to admit that I am a book snob.  I see people reading romance novels and
instead of being happy that they are reading, I judge them for their
selection.  I was looking for a book to
help me with my fear of flying in the self-help section a few months ago and
despite the fact that I was hundreds of miles away from home, I was still
looking around to make sure no one could see me.  At the same time, I’m a sucker for young
adult books and feel no shame in reading them even though others tease me for
it.  I also have been known to read some
chick lit (very different from romance) when at the beach, but after reading
one of these “less-important” genres, I always feel that it is necessary to
read a classic or a smart contemporary novel to balance out my reading.

you look at the top-selling books, they always differ from the lists of the
best books.  The top-selling books
usually consist of some novels mixed in with self-help books and diet
books.  The best books are the smart
contemporary novels.  If you look at the
2007 bestselling list at and compare it with the editor’s pick for
best books of 2007 on the same site, only half of the top ten are the
same.  There is a sort of dissonance
between what we value and what we actually read.

Part of me says that people should just read what they enjoy.  There is no point in reading Anna Karenina or Wuthering Heights
if you aren’t going to enjoy it.  Stick
to the romance if that’s what makes you happy. 
But the other part of me wants everyone to read Anna Karenina and Wuthering Heights
because I love them so much and they are just good books.  This other part of me thinks it is a cop out
to not read challenging books or books that require a little deeper analysis to
enjoy them.  To me, part of reading is
the intellectual challenge, but to others, it is just a form of entertainment
and they do not want their entertainment to be hard.

As I mentioned Anna Karenina, I
remembered that a lot of people actually have read this because it was an
Oprah’s Book Club book.  For me and many
of my fellow book snobs, that Oprah sticker on a book is hideous.  I received Middlesex for Christmas and was relieved when I found that it was
just a sticker and could be removed.  One
of my book club friends recently made a good point on the subject.  Why should we care if people are only buying
books because of Oprah if it gets them to read it?  We can still buy our clean versions and it
gets new people reading books they otherwise would have overlooked.  It’s really a win-win situation.  Just as the movie versions of books might get
people to read, so does that Oprah sticker.

think the Oprah/movie tie-in discussion reflects the odd value that we give
books.  It is the same book whether or
not that Oprah sticker is there, so what makes her edition different?  The only thing I can think of is the
readers.  Maybe Anna Karenina loses some of its value when too many people read it
or when people who may not really “get it” read it.  Maybe we book snobs want to keep these books
for ourselves.  Not only are we snobby
but we’re selfish.  Maybe we like being
the only ones who have read something. 
Maybe romance novels are not “worse” than classic literature.  It might just be an entirely extrinsic and
socially constructed thing.

There is also the possibility that people do not express their actual
taste in books.  People are always trying
to shape their image and advertising reading tastes is one way to do this.  That editor’s pick list on may
just be a reflection of the editor’s trying to appear like good editors.  Maybe they enjoyed those romance novels just
as much.  With the advent of Myspace and
Facebook, it is easy to let people know what books you enjoyed.  And don’t we all put the same books in our profiles?  Is it really a true reflection of our reading
tastes?  I would have to answer that it
is not.  It is just a way of presenting
ourselves and controlling how people view us.

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7 Responses to “Books and the Good Life: What makes a book good?”

  1. Kristie Says:

    I'm sort of a book snob, too. I like to look like I'm reading important stuff and I look down upon those reading romance books lol I love being able to tell people I have read all of Jane Austen's works and that some of my favorite books are long classics, like the Count of Monte Cristo. But, I also don't care sometimes if people think I'm reading stupid books. I love the Septimus Heap series which is for younger adults because I enjoy them (and yes, because sometimes it's an easy read to use between harder books). I don't try to hide my Septimus Heap books, I even recommend them. While I like to look intellectual, I also don't mind if I look weird for reading kids' books :o)

  2. Phaedrus Says:

    I'm a book snob as well and I have discovered that being well read and having read a lot are two entirely different things. My girlfriend, who I love very much, has read many, many more books than I have. She is extremely prolific in her reading, but her reading consists almost entirely of Dean Koontz and other's of that ilk. I, on the other hand, read far less, but I like to think that I read much higher fare. That's not to say there is anything wrong with Dean Koontz, she has gotten me to read a couple of his books and they are enjoyable, these types of books are just not going to push anyone's intellectual boundaries. She is always asking the meaning of a particular word she has heard somewhere and I tell her that with all the reading she does I can't believe she has never come across these words. But I guess Im a book snob too.My next post will be my reading list to show off my snobbishness. ha ha

  3. Michelle Says:

    I think reading kid's/YA books is different from the less-intellectual adult books. I think it's easier to justify for some reason.I still need to read the rest of the Septimus Heap series. I've only read the first one.

  4. Michelle Says:

    Well all of my friends on vox and I post lists of our books all the time. I'm not sure if that actually makes someone a snob, just a show-off. 😉 I even have a link that takes people to a list of all the books I've read in the last 3 years.

  5. Kristie Says:

    I guess it is different. Kid's books are supposed to be simple (usually) but it's weird to see people reading simple adult books. I've read some chick-lit books and found them highly amusing, but I wouldn't want to read them all the time. I will never be caught publicly reading a romance novel…especially one with Fabio & Co. on the cover :o)The 4th Septimus Heap book comes out in 11 days and I'm pumped!

  6. Michelle Says:

    I see people on the bus reading those Harlequin romance novels and I just think that they must be embarrassed but they aren't. I could never do it. But maybe they are more confident than I am. :)Maybe I will get Flyte from the library – you are inspiring me to continue the series. Do you think it gets better or is each book about as good as Magyk?

  7. Kristie Says:

    I wouldn't say that they necessarily get better, but I still think they stay about as interesting/good as Magyk. I'd definitely urge you to continue, especially because they're easy reads you can get through fast

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