Friday, October 7, 2011

Defining My Terms

As an English teacher, I'm constantly recommending books and/or haranguing my students to come peruse my overflowing bookshelves. I try to stock a wide variety, including some books that just don't catch my interest but that I know will be appealing to certain of my students. (BTW, thank you Borders, for choosing back-to-school time to close up shop. At 70% or even 90% off, I was much more willing to purchase books that I don't want to read, if I know my students will. There is much more non-fiction sports writing in the collection now, for example.) At the same time--I'm buying these books on my own time, with my own hard-earned, y'know, blah blah blah, so I feel ok about letting my quirks shine through. I stock very few vampire books--my entire Twilight series walked away my first year and I never saw fit to replace it. If someone wants to make a case for a vampire book or series that stands out, I'll try it--it just seems too hard to sift through and find what's good vs. what's pulpy and mass-produced. A crummy vampire novel is just plain crummy--whereas even a crummy dystopian novel
at least, inherently, has a social critique of some kind for the reader to think about.

Ok, so all that is to say, I think a lot about what makes a "good" book. I get asked at least once a day, "Mrs. S, is this one good?" I have to interpret what that question means based on who's asking--some kids mean, "I don't really read--is this going to grab me and suck me in?" Other kids mean, "You know me, you know what I read--is this my style?" Other kids are willing to try anything and just want some reassurance that something is worth a shot.

As an adult with a degree in English who reads at least 75% YA, I feel like I need to be judicious with applying the big g-word when I'm talking to other adults. I find myself saying things like, "Oh my god, I just read ____________ and I'm so obsessed right now," or "This plot has me so hooked--go away and let me read my book." (Sorry, Mr. S!) With knock-out, absolutely wonderful books, I'll take the step. I stand by every part of the His Dark Materials and Hunger Games trilogies. (If I ever get a tattoo--which I don't plan on doing, but who knows--it will be a particular four-word phrase from Mockingjay which I can't even think without getting a little winded.)

I have to have a few go-tos when people hear about what I do and ask questions (go-to recommendations that I am willing to call "good books", even to adults, right now: Divergent, The Ship Breaker, Delirium). But this is a weird standard that I don't necessarily apply in my teaching life, except with a few students who are really voracious and discerning readers. I hold these multiple definitions of "good" in my head all the time. And I'm sure we all do--the book you can't put down even as you find the actual writing hard to take. (A recent experience like that for me was Vixen--I was desperate to know how it would turn out, but the dialogue and some of the description just clunked along, to my ear. If you interrupted me when I was reading it and asked if it was good, though, I would have shooed you away so I could keep reading, which most people would take as a yes.)

So--what's a good book? The part of my brain that feels like I should be reading more Wharton, Dickens, or (oh help) David Foster Wallace* says it has to do with the prose itself--how is the story told? The part of my brain that only learned to form letters so I could write my name on a library card, that's been reading hungrily and instinctively since I was four says it has to do with the experience in the moment. Am I enjoying it? Am I going to keep turning the pages?

And of course, as a teacher, I have the ultimate test. Is this student going to connect in a way that makes him finish this book? Will this student read this one and then want to read another one?

How do you define a "good" book?

*A footnote, in honor of the great man: my husband, also an English major, claims Infinite Jest is his favorite book. I love my husband and so I'm supposed to say things like "I would do anything for him" or whatever. Infinite Jest disproved that after about a hundred and twenty pages. Sorry. Taken together, Mr. S and I would make the ultimate English major, with him covering Chaucer, Marlowe, and everything from Virginia Woolf to the present, and me taking Shakespeare and everything from Tom Jones through Edith Wharton.


  1. Dying to know what that four-word phrase is from Mockingjay now... LOL :D

  2. The phrase is

    "This is what happens:"

    It's p. 346 in the hardcover. So simple and so devastating because as soon as I saw it I knew what I was about to read and didn't want to, but that colon at the end of a paragraph just propelled me forward into the next one, like falling off a cliff. (It may also be my single favorite use of punctuation by anyone ever. Sorry, I'm an English teacher/nerd.)


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