What Makes and What Breaks a Good Book

These qualities determine how I feel about every read and encourage me to reflect on what to look for in future books. 

Every passionate reader knows that generally, it doesn’t take long to decide how to feel about a book. For me, there is always one decisive moment during each read, when I know to what extent I like it or not. This moment is usually determined by an emotion, a realisation, or a thought the book causes, and more often than not, that’s when I know exactly why the book is good or not for my taste.

My nose for good books has probably developed with time, but I have now reached a point where most of my reads are three-star ratings or higher. When choosing what to add to my TBR, I look for particular characteristics, which is a habit I’ve acquired in the past couple of years, that has changed the quality of my reading experiences overall.

Besides choosing my books based solely on the genres and types of plot I prefer, I now look for a certain kind of language, characters, tone, and style. After years of heavy-duty reading — and many disappointments — these are the best and worst features a book can have, that can completely change how I feel about it.

What Makes a Good Book

We all know that satisfying feeling when we realise how much we love the book we’re reading. Sometimes, it’s a warm sensation that makes you want to curl within the pages and savour every word. Other times, it’s the thrill of wanting to know what happens next.

But either way, those feelings of accomplishment and relief usually come from three main qualities I look for in every book.

1. Characters I Can Empathise With

Trusting one of my favourite booktubers, I finally decided to pick up “Still Alice” by Lisa Genova last summer, and it was, for me, a two-star read at best. The plot sounded right up my alley, so did the genre. It’s contemporary fiction about a Linguistics professor diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and how it starts affecting her brain. 

Memory loss is a topic I’m very interested in, but “Still Alice” just didn’t do it for me. And that’s because I couldn’t relate to any character at all. This made me uninterested and a little distracted throughout.

The opposite happened with Alice Oseman’s “Solitaire”, a young adult novel whose protagonist, Tori Spring, is more or less teenage me. YA was never my preferred genre, and it could be that Oseman got our generation’s teenage struggles perfectly right. Still, her characters always spoke to me on another level and made me understand and see my past self in a completely different light — earning them five-star ratings every time.

2. Mind Games

Haruki Murakami is my favourite novelist, and the only explanation I have is his particular way of playing with his readers’ minds. Every Murakami title I’ve read so far lays human emotion on the fine lines between parallel realities, and it twists any logic or reason behind his characters’ actions, but only ever so slightly. 

What I feel when finishing one of his novels is so particular, and different from everything else, a subtle mix of confusion, intrigue, and appreciation, that I must admit mind games are now something I actively seek in my books.

3. The Right Use of Language

Nothing gets my passion going like the perfect word in the perfect context. Sometimes, I change certain words and phrases in my head as I read because I think others could fit better. 

Some of my most intense book-induced emotions came from the language used. From Virginia Woolf’s specific descriptions to Bernardine Evaristo’s realistic characters, a writer who cherishes and doesn’t take language for granted will most likely appeal to my bookish tastes.

What Breaks a Good Book

Many fellow readers will be horrified to find out I never finished objectively flawless books like Jose Saramago’s “Blindness”, or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Beautiful and Damned”. 

And although I had different reasons to put aside both of them, the common denominators between all of my DNFs, or literary disappointments, are usually the very things that other readers sometimes appreciate or look for.

1. Unnecessary Descriptions

I just can’t be bothered to read how a character folds clothes while thinking about their biggest regret. Why do I care about them folding clothes? Why is that relevant? Why would you set such an important moment of character development on the background of such a dull activity? 

This is, of course, an absurd example, but one along the lines of many scenes I’ve read so far, that added nothing to the story, nor the characters, but were just there to be there. While other readers prefer a slow burn, and to be given as much detail as possible, I like getting creative filling the gaps too ordinary to add to a plot. If I want the character to instead make lasagne while thinking about their biggest regret, I can choose that instead. 

2. Unidimensional Characters

Dull characters, no real plot, it’s that simple. A greatly structured, well-thought-out, well-written novel is nothing without a good, believable, complex set of characters. Unidimensional characters ruin every positive thing about a book for me. 

I need to see some development, some evolution (or involution), some conflict. Otherwise, the whole book is just a big yawn for me. This was the case with Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s “The Watcher in The Shadows”, a book with amazing potential through its plot. To me, all the characters in this book felt flat, like paper cuttings, constantly bent by the unfolding of events, doing unreasonable things that made no sense, or sometimes doing nothing at all, and that ruined a perfectly well-structured, atmospheric novel.

3. Underwhelming endings

Just like an average book can knock over the best ones only through its spectacular ending, the opposite is also true. Nothing frustrates me more than an inexplicable, downright bad — or, God forbid, lazy — ending. 

I don’t mind cliff-hangers. I don’t mind open endings. But rushed endings with no real meaning can put me off reading altogether because they spoil a great reading experience, and disappoint me more than an overall bad book would.

The Takeaway

Books awaken many unique sensations in us and pausing to analyse how they determine our feelings towards that particular read can help us anticipate what we prefer, down to the smallest details. 

I don’t believe in entirely good or entirely bad books. Each reader has the privilege to decide that. But finding out what makes us choose one book over another, or rate one book higher than a similar one can sometimes improve our future reading experiences and fuel our inner bookworm to keep us doing what we love the most.

Stuck for what to read? Check out some of our recommendations.

Published by Eliza Lita

Founder and editor-in-chief: Coffee Time Reviews. Freelance journalist covering breaking news, business, politics, books, and fitness.

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