Hey, my name is Cory (as in the girl name, not the identically-spelled boy name), and books are my friends. And by friends, I mean the kind of friends that aren’t invited to a party, but you smuggle them in anyway by hiding them in your bag. Good friends, friends I try to force my mother to like by placing them ever-so-subtly on her pillow. But she doesn’t read everything I throw at her because she has preferences. I have preferences, too, actually, if you’ll believe it. Everyone has things they look for in a good book, right? While I’m not claiming these things will ultimately decide whether I’ll pick up a book, let alone if I’ll like it (I absolutely love humor in literature, for instance, but does that mean I’m never going to love anything serious?), but there are certain things a book can do to make itself more memorable for me. Okay, a lot of things. I’ve tried to narrow them down a bit:
Yes, I believe in the old “Use your words!” sentiment, which would encourage me to create multiple dimensions using only lines and lines of different combinations of the same twenty-six letters, but I must admit that I am easily impressed by what others may think of as gimmicks; the quickest way to make me fall in love with a book is to tamper with the formatting so that it’s not just the traditional text block, but something unique that has never been done before. For example, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, anyone? I mean, the narrator is Death. Fourth wall? What is this fourth wall of which you speak? The narrative isn’t linear, nor does it aspire to be, sometimes containing its own spoilers. Some of the chapters, even, do not contain any copy and consist only of rough drawings with captions. God, I’m getting sentimental just thinking about it.
Another example of this phenomenon would be Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Although a great deal of the book is expressed in a straightforward first person perspective, it can toggle back and forth between prose, mock play scripts, journal entries, one half of a conversation, and the photographs that protagonist Oskar finds on his computer. No worries about words, let’s just look at a picture of some pigeons.
This is a pretty widely-held requirement people have for books, yet it still seems hard to satisfy sometimes. I find that it’s rare for me to come across a book with a completely detached main character because, let’s face it, authors are actual human beings with feelings. And usually, if the author doesn’t spend a lot of time making the characters likable, he or she might be trying to get you to pay more attention to the plot or the premise or the theme of the story. In fact, one of my favorite short story authors, Philip K. Dick, readily admitted to using this tactic to make his stories more about the fact that humans had accidentally created a post-apocalyptic man-eating computer than about the people being eaten by it.
However, these are exceptions, and most of the time I long for a kindred spirit who will let me inside their head for just a short part of their life and remind me that all people struggle with feelings of dejection and hopelessness and fear. I remember being a kid and thinking that I was Anne of Green Gables reincarnated, even though I still don’t know how my little ten-year-old attention span put up with three hundred pages of rural life in old-timey Canada, and I would do anything to give every single woman in The Joy Luck Club a hug. And maybe that’s just part of the magic of novels: you can find reassurance that you’re not alone in this weird thing we call life.
I accept multiple levels and types of humor, ranging from the sheer absurdity of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to the subtle social commentary in Pride and Prejudice to that weird feeling you get during 1984 that you would be laughing if you didn’t care about the well-being of society, but I think the funniest thing I’ve ever read has got to be Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. I would definitely recommend it as a boredom-killer, mostly because it’s the kind of book you can pick up at any time and open to any chapter and still get a few knee-slaps; the nonlinear storytelling makes the sheer length commitment less daunting, and while the chapters aren’t necessarily self-contained stories, they don’t really rely on each other either. Although a satire of modern warfare and the people who would be crazy enough to help perpetuate it is serious business, it is carried out with this manner of ridiculousness with a million different unique characters (including my favorite, Major Major Major Major, who was alienated in kindergarten because he looked too much like Henry Fonda) who get into all these Abbot-and-Costello-like arguments all the time, and plenty of straight-up logical fallacies hiding in every corner — yet every once in a while there’s also some truly horrifying moment of irony that makes you doubt the greed-riddled society we were all raised in. (Milo Minderbinder, anyone?) It’s really an awesome book, everyone, and totally worth the length.
- Wacky premises
- Ridiculously unique things like taxidermy rearing their heads, even if only for a second
- Political undertones, especially
- Feminist undertones
- Unreliable narrators
- Creepiness, horror
- Music references, if I get them
Well, that’s all I can think of in this sitting. I know for a fact that there are more things that attract me to certain books more than others, but why worry so much about not remembering them when I’m surprised all the time? Maybe it’s time for me to expand my list. What’s on your list?
— Cory C., currently reading Cloud Atlas by Liam Callanan, which she didn’t know was distinct from the other Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell until about three chapters in, oddly enough