On Reading a Good Book I Didn’t Like

Mark Twain is famously quoted as saying “Classics are books which people praise and don’t read.”  As there are about a million variations of this sentiment floating around the internet, I’ve decided not to pick a fight with his definition of a classic.  Instead, I’ve been contemplating the idea of what makes a book good – a far more subjective and tenuous concept.

A few weeks ago I read a book I didn’t much like.  Not much happened, I thought; the narrator wasn’t very sympathetic, the main character not quite human, and it just sort of fizzled out at the end.  Though the book had been recommended to me by people whose suggestions rarely disappoint, I felt that in this instance they had let me down.  I closed the book, told my sister she wouldn’t like it, and promptly returned it to the library.  Since, however, it was one of those books with glowing recommendations and loads of scholarship, I decided to do some further research to see what I might be missing.  After reading a couple of critical essays, I felt like I understood the book – but I still didn’t like it.

In the days since, however, I’ve found myself recalling and reflecting on various things about the story, particularly its too-good-to-be-true main character.  The longer I think about him, the more I realize our similarities, which then causes me to consider how the book’s lesson might apply to me, which then makes me think more about the narrator I didn’t like and why, which then…

All this to say, I’ve had to reconsider my previous opinion.  Any book that can stick with me weeks after I read and disliked it cannot be devoid of any merit – it must, in some sense, be “a good book”.  Before reading this particular novel, I defined a good book as one I enjoyed, a bad book as one I disliked, and a well-written book as one I could see had technical merit but I personally did not appreciated.  Now, the categories are a little more grey.  A good book has become one that refuses to be forgotten; that challenges; that changes one’s thinking.

Unfortunately, this new definition doesn’t make the phrase “a good book” any less subjective.  For example, I know many people who love The Brothers Karamozov, while I forget most of what happens at the beginning.  My personal favourite book teaches me something every time I read it, but to others it’s only an overly long detective novel.  Truth be told, a large part of me wishes there were a line of demarkation, clearly distinguishing what makes a book good or bad.  (“To Kill A Mockingbird?  Good. My Friend Flicka? Bad.”)  However, reading is such an individual experience that to a certain extent it’s foolish to even try making those distinctions.  “Well-written” we can argue.  “Interesting — clever — well-plotted.”  But “good”, I think, is a category that forces itself on you, whatever you may think of the book itself.

  1. I wonder if how well a book holds up over time plays into whether it should be called a ‘good book.’ We stil read books from a thousand years ago, but books die out and people forget more than they remember.

    • I think that’s true. But isn’t that also because we can’t forget them? Like The Iliad or Shakespeare or Huck Finn. They’ve stuck in our heads and influence our thinking.

      • I think that’s precisely what makes it a ‘good book.’ One that gets stuck in our heads and influences our thinking.

  2. By the way, I didn’t mention the name of the book because I felt it was irrelevant to the post. But my editor tells me that some people might be overly curious, so I here reveal:

    The book in question is A Separate Peace, by John Knowles.

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