Just the other day, I was asked to recommend a good book. Having read a wide range of literature, I paused and contemplated as to what was the one book that made the biggest impact on me. Reeling in my thoughts, I concluded that the most memorable book for me was A Prayer for Owen Meaney, by John Irving.
This mental exercise got me thinking – what makes a book memorable? Are these the same books that we would cherish and recommend to fellow readers? I do know this – a good book will suck you in, uphold your interest, and keep you excited. And being excited about the literature is what keeps the reader reading.
I could study the plot structure of A Prayer for Owen Meaney, dissecting it piece by piece, but I’m not sure if that exercise would explain the book’s magic. I could break it down into pieces and examine the parts, but if I did, the passion would be corrupted. Think about it, when you speak about your favorite piece of literature, do you begin with the expository, stating the setting and characters, followed by the first example of conflict, leading into the rising action? Come on! If you’re like me, you bust with enthusiasm about the story’s characters – their personalities and challenges.
Recently, I asked my students in class what made a book memorable? Was it the characters, the setting, the problem? Was it mysticism, or maybe a breakout from literary thinking, inducing the senses and providing an escape? The majority of the students thought that the characters made a novel memorable. Hungry for more, I continued, “What makes the characters the most outstanding part of the novel?” Their answer, “It’s like taking an ordinary problem and enabling a remarkable and unique character to unravel the solution.” Hmmm…
All of this certainly got me wondering about the value of good books. How can one possibly shift through the abundant array of books searching for the pinnacle of fine literature? While some novels are bulky yet opaque, with little power to grab and sustain a reader’s interest (nevertheless capable of an effective doorstop), others are small and mighty, able to make a lasting impression – I hope the kids in my class remember Buddha Boy by Kathe Koja. Where do we begin with our quest for good literature? It is my hope that you will help de-clutter the shelves of literary dribble (or drivel, depending upon your view).
The next time I recommend a worthy book, I’ll simply remember the character encounter principle – did the characters have sticking power, did they take me to another place (physically, emotionally, spiritually), was I attached to them – loved them, loathed them, did they get my intellectual juices flowing? I declare- a great piece of literature has the muscle to captivate your senses, spark your imagination, and introduce you to some very special characters that transport you to another place. What novel has had this impact on you?