“In the great green room,” I begin. Two little blue eyes widen in wonder as they drink in colors and shapes.
“There was a telephone, and a red balloon. And a picture of…” I pause for dramatic effect before turning the blocky page. Tiny feet kick in excited anticipation. “A cow, jumping over the moon!”
It doesn’t matter in the slightest that Baby Sam and I probably both know every line of Goodnight Moon by heart at this point. No matter how many times I sit him down in my lap and crack open the cover, the magic of reading together infects us both with the warm fuzzies and we share sweet giggles together, snuggled between the pages of a good book.
It’s no secret—I really like books. If you’ve been to my house, my prominently displayed collection has probably caught your eye. My friends and family frequently gift me with book bags, book-inspired t-shirts and accessories, and even book-themed candles. I’ve loved books for pretty much forever. We have a picture of me when I was Sam’s age, staring intently at a picture book my sister Laura was reading to me (well, she was only about 3 years old then, so I say “reading” rather loosely.) All this to say, the books I love have always been a part of my life.
The thing about books though, is that there are always more of them out there than you’ll ever be able to read. So many books, so little time, as book lovers often lament. How cool is that?! For millennia, literacy was rare and books were limited to the rich. But now, my four-month-old owns more books than the average medieval peasant would see in a lifetime. We live in a culture where the ability to read is assumed and anyone can walk into a library and be surrounded by literally thousands of books FOR FREE. And the only problem we have to complain about is that there are too many books available than we can read in one lifetime. Wow, we are so very blessed.
So if there truly are “so many books and so little time,” then it would make sense that we want the books we spend our time reading to be worth it. “Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books,” so says the charming book The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. So, what factors distinguish good books from bad? I’m so glad you asked cause I just so happen to have prepared a long-winded explanation of my personal book evaluation technique. 🙂
Just a note, before I jump into full Book Nerd mode: The original skeleton of this discussion has been hanging around my brain for a long time, since I’ve always had strong opinions on what a “good” book means to me. Up till recently, however, my whole argument about good books was built on picking apart examples of books that didn’t live up to my standards. My recent sermon on snobbery made me decide to restructure it for two reasons. First, there’s no sense in publicly spitting on books that (in many cases) are very popular and people enjoy reading. That makes me the proud and ungracious snob that I so thoroughly denounced a few weeks ago, and basically says I think I’m better than you cause you read trash books. And that’s not what I want to say here at all. While my opinions might be well-meaning, dragging books through the mud to support those opinions puts a negative spin on the whole thing and leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Secondly, if my thesis is “I think these books are bad and here’s why,” it leaves no room for application. It mostly just makes you feel bad about yourself if you like those books and gives you a superiority complex if you don’t. So instead, when I say, “I think these books are good and here’s why,” then hey, at the very least I’ve just given you a few more suggestions of things I think are worth adding to your reading list! Hopefully I don’t come across here as a condescending Book Snob. If I do, feel free to ignore me and read whatever you like, you won’t hurt my feelings.
So enough prologue (which if you’re a certain type of reader, you skipped anyway.) Let’s launch into the literature lesson you never asked for and that consists purely of my own personal opinions! Yay!
There are a lot of factors to consider when you’re deciding whether a particular book is good or not. But just to keep things simple, I’ve come up with three categories that I use to evaluate books: Beauty, Story, and Value, which I also sometimes term The How, The What, and The Why.
Note: I’m pretty much limiting this discussion to fiction. I love nonfiction too, but I tend to hold it to different standards, so I don’t think I’ll touch on it today. Maybe later.
- Beauty – HOW the book is written
My first evaluation category, Beauty, is about the details of a book. And while I would say that it’s the least important category that I consider when I evaluate a book, it’s often the first thing I notice. And it can definitely make or break a book. We’ve all read (or maybe attempted to read and subsequently abandoned) a book or two that just didn’t measure up in this area. Whether you do it consciously or not, you can pretty much always tell good writing from poor writing.
When I talk about the beauty of a book, I’m talking about the quality of the sentences. The words. Sometimes even the punctuation is a factor—but ya gotta be a little nerdy to get that nitty-gritty. Writing, for better or worse, is the gatekeeper between the reader and the story. When chosen well, the words usher the reader straight into the world of the book. When chosen poorly, they slam the door in the reader’s face and make it impossible to see beyond the literal paper and ink. If you’re sitting there reading a poorly written sentence over and over trying to decipher what it’s supposed to mean, you’re not living in the story anymore.
Beautiful books are the ones that get this whole wordsmithing and sentence-crafting thing right. They have words that sizzle and sentences that glow. It doesn’t matter how informative or important the content is, or how great the story sounded in the author’s mind—if it reads like a chemistry textbook, then the book will have the personality of a half-deflated balloon.
Now, I’ve been writing long enough to know that sure, not every single word or comma an author pens is put there with deliberate intent. Words are hard, you guys. But other times, you can just tell that each individual word was carefully selected and placed in its sentence just so, like tiny glimmering jewels set into a crown. And when it’s done well, the result is dazzling.
Every time I think of beautiful books, I remember one specific paragraph from The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter (a book I highly recommend with the caveat that it’s a product of its time. If you’re not into the Romantic era in literature, I totally get that. It can come off as a bit overdone. But it’s one of my favorite books nonetheless and about a billion times more historically accurate than Braveheart, but that’s a rant for another time.) I wish I could quote this paragraph to you verbatim, but can’t just flip to the page because I read it on Kindle (yeah I know, I know, you have my permission to judge. But it was a free download, so sue me.) But the basic idea of this spectacular moment in the book was that William Wallace was moving his army through the Highlands. The sun was rising behind them and hitting the mountain in front of them, and as its rays reflected off the myriads of distant mountain streams, they shone like cascading rivulets of liquid emeralds. Isn’t that just a delicious word picture? Liquid. Emeralds. I mean, it would be so easy to write “As they marched, the sun was rising,” and move on to the next important plot point. But instead, we got to stop and stand next to Wallace on that mountain, watching the liquid emeralds glisten in the dawn’s first light.
Further examples of books that really nail it on Beauty:
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (Odd to call this one “beautiful” cause it’s a pretty raw war story, but the writing is spectacular.)
- This Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Yes, I know it’s a translation and it’s probably prettier in the original French, but still.)
- Moby Dick by Herman Melville (A question: can Hannah write a blog post without bringing up Melville? Answer: nope, guess not. But I just had to slip this one in! Sometimes witty and snarky, sometimes extremely sobering—the writing in Moby Dick is pure gold. Also there are whales. Give Ishmael a chance, people!)
- Story—WHAT the book is about
My second evaluation category, Story, is probably the most obvious measure of a book’s merit. It’s what makes the book a book. Story is suspenseful plots, unexpected twists. Story is characters that are believable and/or relatable. Frankly, it’s likely the reason you picked up the book in the first place, and it’s the number one element that keeps you turning those pages. It’s hard to quit a book with an interesting story, even if the writing is less than stellar.
Story also happens to be the most subjective evaluation category. I mean, I guess we all learned the objective ways to measure a story in high school lit class (you know what I’m talking about—plot structure diagrams, categorizing types of conflict, that sort of thing.) But in the end, even if it checks all the right literary boxes, a story’s success comes down to whether or not the reader likes what the book has to offer. What one person thinks is a page-turner may put another to sleep. (Tragedy of tragedies, John can’t keep his eyes open when he tries to read Melville. It’s just not his jam. But I am okay with that now.) But regardless of whatever genre you happen to enjoy, I think we can all agree that books are better when they keep you interested and engaged.
I don’t have a whole lot to say about this point because almost everyone intuitively knows a good story from a meh one. And honestly, most published fiction books don’t struggle here. I’ve run into two or three in the past few years where I finished the book and thought to myself, “Wow, literally nothing happened for 300 pages, what passed for plot was predictable or confusing, and all the characters were flatter than flapjacks.” But those kinds of books are (fortunately) in my experience few and far between.
My recommendations for books with really great stories:
- The Legend of the Firefish by George Brian Polivka (the others in this trilogy and the prequel are really good too, but the first one is the one that really sticks out to me. Can’t go wrong with pirates and sea monsters, ya know.)
- The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (Skim through the chapters that go into painstaking detail about French banks and accounting—the rest of the story is so worth it!)
- The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien (There’s a reason LotR is pretty much the ultimate granddaddy of the fantasy genre. Even if you’re already familiar with the movies, I’d recommend giving these a read. I think they’ll surprise you.)
- Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (Yes, I’m slipping a nonfiction book into this list, because it is sincerely more riveting than almost any novel I’ve ever read. You’ll have a hard time believing it’s nonfiction.)
- Value—WHY the book matters
This third and final category, Value, is what took me the longest to figure out, but I’m convinced it’s the most important factor. A book that ranks high in beauty and story can be a good read. But if it lacks value, it can never be a great book. When I was little, my mom (who happens to be a dietitian) would compare books to food groups: Some books were candy books—fun and sweet, but lacking any real nutrition. That didn’t make them bad books per se, but if that’s all you ever read, it would be like trying to nourish your body solely on cotton candy. My Value category hearkens back to that idea: is this book just fluff, or is there real meat to it here?
A book with value causes you to think critically about the world around you. It teaches you something. Oftentimes, it makes an impact on your life that can draw you closer to God. I’ve always thought it was really special that when Jesus taught, he used stories, or parables, to state huge spiritual truths in ways that could be easily understood and applied. Books with real value echo this technique. Fictional stories have power to deliver truth that can change perspectives and lives.
If you’ve ever talked about books with me, we’ve probably talked about Narnia. I could write pages and pages and pages on the spiritual and practical application value that’s embedded in each one of the Chronicles individually, and then probably a few more bonus pages regarding the series as a whole, but I won’t do that now. You’re welcome. Just know that when I talk about a book’s value, the Chronicles of Narnia are kind of my gold standard.
A quick aside about a book’s value: I don’t think every single book you read necessarily has to have tons of weight to it. Sometimes you just want a sweet little poolside read purely for its entertainment value, and that’s fine. I happen to be in the midst of reading a “candy book” right now, in fact. So don’t think I’m saying you should never read light books for entertainment. I do, however, feel strongly that the books you read should not have negative value. (Or maybe it’s anti-value?? I don’t know, but I mean like, bad books.) Books that glorify, laugh at, or even normalize immorality and sin are out of bounds for Christian readers. What we read feeds our minds. Make sure you are not feeding yours poison. Put your reading material through the “whatever test” of Philippians 4:8—“Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.”
That being said, please don’t assume that every book by a Christian author, produced by a Christian publisher, and sold at a Christian bookstore automatically gets a stamp of approval. It’s almost easier to buy dangerous books at Christian bookstores than at secular ones, simply because the lies they contain are dressed up to look church-y. So we let our guard down when reading them, because hey, Mardel wouldn’t sell me a bad book! (Spoiler alert, they would.) As a young teen, I did considerable damage to myself by indiscriminately consuming dozens of stupid, valueless Christian romances that I thought were safe because all the characters prayed and went to church. Hold your Christian books to a higher standard than you hold your secular books to. Don’t give lies a pass just because they slipped in under a cloak of Christianese lingo.
And of course I would be remiss if I didn’t clarify that non-Christian books can and often do have real value as well. It does take an extra step though, because you have to filter what’s said through your own biblical worldview, sifting out what isn’t true and taking in what is. This isn’t a book example, but the principle is the same—John and I love watching BBC Earth documentaries like Planet Earth and Blue Planet. We’ll be watching a super cool octopus do its thing and Sir David Attenborough will say something like “what a marvel of evolution that this octopus has developed this particular camouflage to protect itself from predators.” But with a biblical worldview we see the same scientific fact—an octopus with camouflage— and draw a different conclusion: “Isn’t God’s creativity amazing that He gave this octopus the ability to protect itself like this?” Even though these films are presented from a humanist worldview, we are able to see value in it and glorify God because of it.
Ok, time to climb down off that soap box and recommend some valuable books (other than Narnia.)
- Eve’s Daughters by Lynn Austin (Deals with themes like the generational consequences of sin, family relationships, faithfulness in marriage, forgiveness, and redemption. If you’re empathetic at all, bring a tissue. Or a whole box, I won’t judge.)
- Safely Home by Randy Alcorn (It’s been years since I read this one but I don’t hesitate to recommend it even though I don’t remember the plot. I know it was a very moving story of faithfulness under persecution. Maybe it’s time for me to revisit this one.)
- All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (See, this one’s not a Christian book, but it’s very powerful as far as its perspective on WWI from the “other” side. It’ll make you think of soldiers in war as individuals, not as an amorphous mass of faceless “enemy.” Also it’s pretty heavy, but definitely worth a read.)
- Stepping Heavenward by Elizabeth Prentiss (A fictional diary that traces a woman through the Christian life, starting as a 16-year old and walking with her through coming of age, romance, marriage, motherhood, family issues, loss, and faithfulness. It’s a very personal and encouraging read whatever stage of life you might be in.)
So there you have it—Hannah’s official guide to evaluating what you read, complete with a handful of recommendations for your to-read list. (As a side effect, you also now know what kind of books I like. I’m always open to recommendations, hint hint. Or you can friend request me on Goodreads – my username is hkayewrites—and I will shamelessly stalk your reading list.)
My book evaluation technique is nothing scientific, but it’s what I’ve found works for me. Take it or leave it, but my hope is that pinning down why you enjoy the books you do will enhance your life as a reader, and help you discover more good books for years to come.
And in regards to Goodnight Moon, you can simply forget everything I just said. My evaluation categories have no bearing on it whatsoever. I have no idea what makes it such a good book and a timeless classic. But it makes my little boy coo and squirm with sheer delight, so for now at least, it just so happens to be my favorite book in the whole world.