My daughter asked me the other day: So what makes a good book a good book anyway?
She is twelve, and I don’t think that she should be considering these kinds of adult problems.
If you spend much time wondering about these things, I want to tell her, you will lose your taste for the things you do need to be tasting on a regular basis: ice cream, fresh bread, a true navel orange, hope for the future, fair play on the playground, and endless sources of love and compassion. And good books too. Those kinds of things.
As I write this, the yard crew is here, and they are wrestling with the lacy, long leaves of the bald cypress in the front yard, and they are having a devil of a time bringing the mess into some kind of order. As I try to imagine how I will answer my daughter — I asked for a day or two — I realized that being human is mainly about wrangling our messy lives into some kind of order, whether we’re dealing with a bald cypress or a good book or a chaotic Congress or a long line at the grocery store.
I realize too that I am taking her question more seriously than I should. But from the moment I learned to read well enough to get my library card, my mother took me to our public library on a regular basis. What I found in the stacks of books that I brought home were small, readily available arrangements of order that sprang up the moment I opened the book and disappeared the moment I closed them. An orderly world, then, always available and portable to boot. It wasn’t really the books I loved though; I loved the experience of reading and still do. Pathways to other worlds. An instant access to order and arrangement.
Surely most of us can recognize a good book when we read it, although few of us are concerned to tell others why it is a good book. As a college English teacher, I’ve been paid to talk and write about good books, and what makes them good books, for almost four decades. And for almost four decades, I’ve failed. Undertaking such a project is ill-fated from the beginning for reasons that bore me even now as I consider them, so I won’t go into them here. But I have learned a few things from my students as they’ve read through the books I’ve assigned them. I note them here for future reference when I finally do answer my daughter’s question.
A good book lodged in the memory is a place of refuge, and we call up its memory whenever we need its shade and cover.
A good book is the politest way we have, as soon as we pick it up, of telling everyone else that we are currently engaged until further notice. It says to those around us, don’t call me, I’ll call you.
A good book is the equivalent of the email message that declares, “I will be checking email irregularly, and I will respond to your inquiry as soon as I am able.”
A good book is a vacation that costs less than the hat you buy on the vacation.
A good book is a direct descendant of the Fourth Amendment that guarantees our right “to be secure in [our] persons, houses, [and] papers,” and so guarantees our privacy when lost in our “papers.”
A good book is a run of dry martinis without the noise of a bar or the hangover, and you don’t have to tip.
A good book is the conversation that you continually look for in your life but never find.
Recommending a good book to someone else is a way of telling that person who you are without telling that person who you are.
A good book is a quiet group of folks who would agree that such-and-such a book is a good book if they ever put their books down long enough to celebrate their agreement. In other words, a good book builds a community of folks who never meet or endure PowerPoint presentations or listen to a speaker who claims to be motivational.
A good book returns you to the coolest classroom you’ve ever entered because you can say and think whatever you wish and learn more in one hour than you’ve learned in any other hour in your life.
A good book is good advice.
A good book’s return on investment would make the most lucrative hedge fund manager green with envy.
A good book is a sustained argument without the red faces and bloated veins and hurt feelings.
A good book can make you feel guilty for not knowing important things, but it will solve the problem privately by telling you what you need to know and do so behind closed doors and not in public where guilt is transformed into shame.
A good book has nothing to do with shame, and it will encourage a similar fortitude in its reader.
A good book refuses discussions about quality. It encourages discussions about pleasure and delight.
A good book is waking up on the first day of summer when you are twelve years old.
A good book is a yard freshly blown and raked. A mess of bald cypress leaves corralled into order.
This is how I think of a good book, and this, or something like it, is what I intend to tell my daughter.
Here is what I will not tell her, not yet at least, although I believe it with every ounce of my being: A good book is my twelve-year-old daughter asking me what makes a good book a good book anyway?