How can you tell if a book is good?

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Picture this. You’re lounging on the couch, reading a book, and someone walks by and asks, “What’re’ya reading?’

You tell this curious person the name of the book.

Then, comes the inevitable next question…

“Is it any good?”

Sometimes the answer is a knee-jerk YES! 

That’s how I felt when I read The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow. I hoped people would ask me that question so I could gush about how much I loved it. 

Sometimes the answer is a clear NO.

For whatever reason, the book isn’t working.

And then—maybe most of the time?—the answer is yes AND no. 

The book good in some ways. But it’s not in others.

And what does “good” even mean?

It seems like it should be an easy question. But I can’t seem to nail down a satisfying answer.

And the desire to pronounce some kind of verdict after finishing a book…it’s a natural, human thing to do. (It’s why we’re in love with star ratings and emoji-based reactions.)

So, there we are, sitting on the couch, tongue-tied while the innocent person who asked us the question in the first place is trying to wait politely while we wrestle with our inner literary critic.

Turns out, W. H. Auden figured this out a long time ago. Here’s his suggestion for approaching the age-old question “Is this book any good?”

W. H. Auden said this about how people react to a book:

“For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: 

  1. I can see this is good and I like it; 
  2. I can see this is good but I don’t like it; 
  3. I can see this is good, and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe with perseverance I shall come to like it; 
  4. I can see that this is trash but I like it; 
  5. I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.”

The wonderful Anne Bogel, taking a cue from W. H. Auden, encourages readers to ask themselves just two separate questions: 

  1. Is this a good book?
  2. Did I like the book?

You can like a bad book and dislike a good book. And vice versa.

Meaning…you can be highly entertained and delighted by a book that isn’t all that smart or well-written. 

Alternatively, you can flat-out hate a prize-winning book that all the intellectuals are raving about. 

I like asking the questions this way:

  1. Is this book well crafted? 
    • Are the characters round and deep? 
    • Is the story well plotted and paced? 
    • Is there a coherent sense of theme? 
    • Does everything weave together into a unified whole? Is the language beautiful?
  2. Did I enjoy the experience of reading this book? 
    • Was it a page-turner? 
    • Did I truly care about the characters? 
    • Did the story ring true? 
    • Did it thoroughly entertain me? 
    • Was it simply the right book at the right time perhaps?

The next time you finish a book, try these two questions on for size, and tell me how it goes. 

Does it help to separate the book’s craft from your enjoyment of it?

Leave me a comment and tell me how you approach this. What’s most important to you? Do you have a rating system of some kind? I’d love to know!

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