Friday, December 30, 2011

what makes a good book good?

I've been reflecting lately on what qualifies something as "good literature." I admit it, I'm a bit of a snob when it comes to books. I have been known to hide children's books in closets and under furniture, hoping to avoid the painful experience of re-reading them. I've also been known to get home from the library with a new book, read it to the kids, and then hop on Amazon to buy a copy for our family. Good books ought to be owned, re-read, and treasured!

The kids and I have discovered a few new gems (and a few groaners) this month from our public library, and that's what got me thinking. Here's my proposal for a definition of good literature. I'd love to know what you think!

A good book is one that gets better each time it is read, and invites readers to notice more and more intentional artistry. Sometimes literary art comes through in perfectly delightful rhyme, other times through playful allusions to other great books. Sometimes pictures are literary masterpieces themselves! The story must be well-told and well-crafted so that subsequent readings don't uncover "holes" in the plot or characterization. Above all, a good story must speak to the reader about herself in a way that illuminates her own life experience.

This last sentence is reflected in a book I've just finished reading by Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative. Alter calls narrative in the Bible "prose fiction," not because he doesn't think it's true, but because he sees it operating in similar ways. Ingeniously, he says, "We learn through fiction because we encounter in it the translucent images the writer has cunningly projected out of an intuitively grasped fund of experience not dissimilar to our own, only shaped, defined, ordered, probed in ways we never manage in the muddled and diffuse transactions of our own lives." (156) In other words, good fiction is good because it tells us about ourselves in a way that we can't see from our own vantage point. A good writer is a deep thinker with insight into how things really are. That's what makes Arnold Lobel one of the most brilliant writers of 'I Can Read' books who has ever lived. Frog and Toad make us laugh because they are like us. (Who really wants will power anyway?)

A bad book, on the other hand, is one that parents loath re-reading to their kids. The rhyme doesn't really work. The pictures lack creativity. The plot has holes or is entirely absent. Life is too short to read bad books. I recommend hiding them (or donating them to your local Goodwill).

Perhaps this is why after all these years I'm still studying the Bible and loving it. The Bible is not the only good book, but I have to say that the more I read it, the better it gets!


  1. Alec got two books for Christmas, one good (The Scrambled States of America) and one that I donated to the library after skimming it. I refuse to waste my time with bad books. I too hide or get rid of kids books that I don't want to re-read. Something I love to do for Alec is get recorded books from the library so he can hear a favorite chapter book again. I followed your link and re-read your list of favorite kids books. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is my favorite Narnia book too. Have you seen the old BBC movies of the first 4 Narnia books? They are far superior to the Disney versions.

  2. I don't think I made this up; I know I got parts of it from a Bob Jones homeschooling workshop, but that was before my research days so I didn't keep very good notes. Anyway, I used to do a workshop on choosing good books. The short version is that we tend to worry about 'bad stuff' - sex, violence, and scatological references - and reject those books and keep everything else. The problem is, that would cause us to reject the Bible! Instead, we should look for books that offer truth (and fiction as well as non-fiction can tell the truth), nobility (offering us something to aspire to), and beauty (touching our emotions either in words or pictures).

    That's my 2 cents, anyway. And if you need some good lists of children's books, look for Honey for a Child's Heart and the Sonlight Homeschool Curriculum catalog (

  3. Thanks, Selah and Laura, for your comments!

    Sonlight has been the source for many of our favorite books. I homeschooled Eliana for preschool and kindergarten using their curriculum, and our library is much richer because of it! It's probably time for us to check their catalog again to find some more treasures!

    Selah, I must say that the Disney 'Voyage of the Dawn Treader' made it on my short list. I loved it! But I did see the original BBC versions years ago, and those were really good, too!

  4. Two great books I don't hear mentioned a lot: The Napping House (a picture book) and Shadow Spinner (we couldn't put it down)!

  5. We took Alec to see A Year With Frog and Toad at CPCC Summer Theatre in 2010. It is an absolutely delightful musical adaptation of Arnold Lobel's stories. If you ever get the chance to see it I highly recommend it!
    I love when a play or movie makes me want to read (or re-read) a book.