What is a good book? Or to put it another way: is this book worth reading? Here are four questions to ask of a book you’re about to read.
Will it deliver for you?
Books make promises, in their titles, straplines, back cover descriptions, and endorsements. A good book is one that will deliver on what it promises. ‘A concise, clear, hilarious guide to…’ ought to be short, easily intelligible, and make me laugh out loud. ‘The book that will transform a generation’ ought to be totally original and a real paradigm-shifter. A book about the Second World War should be about… you get the point.
Will it compel you?
A good book is one that you look forward to reading, that you put things off to continue reading, and makes you feel disappointed when you finish reading. A good book is one you don’t put down unless not doing so will be detrimental to your marriage/career/reputation, or unless you have to pause because reading it has made your heartbeat grow too rapid, your desire to pray too acute, your determination to work out who done it too overwhelming, or your need to think through how you will apply its maxims too pressing.
Will it change you?
Good books do not leave their readers where they were when they started. Good books bring us blinking into a new reality, into a world that is slightly different to the one we inhabited when we turned to page one. A reality where more loving, perhaps. Or more suspicious. Or more determined. Or eloquent. Or knowledgeable. Or excited. Or empathetic. But always, more something. The best books are the ones where, five years later, you can still remember how that book changed you.
Will it do it in as many pages as necessary, and as few pages as possible?
We don’t have infinite time. (Not in this life, anyway.) So beware the book that just goes on and on, just repeating its ideas, saying the same thing again and again and again, or saying nothing much at all, blandly, as though it just didn’t know when to cease; or when to stop. But equally, there’s nothing more frustrating than a book that takes leaps of logic rather than building its case; raises a cry for change without showing how you can join the revolution; or races through the plot without setting the scene.
I once thought Ian McEwan should have cut down Atonement by a third, by cutting the first 80 pages or so and just saying, ‘It was a very, very hot day.’ I was wrong. My wife (who reads fiction more, and better, than I) pointed out that the oppression of the heat and the tension of the temperature need to be built, to be felt, to be layered thickly, page on page. Those 80 pages are necessary.
At the same time, some books (and many Christian books, I think) could be about 20% shorter without losing anything at all. I remember reading one book whose first chapter changed my whole view of the Christian life entirely. But once it got to chapter 5, it had run out of new ideas or fresh angles. It was 31 chapters long… I gave up after about 9. That was possibly the best first chapter I’ve ever read. But not the best book.
Here’s the problem…
Books don’t talk, so they can’t answer your questions. (And even if they could, would they tell you the truth?!) And the problem is that there are far too many books that sound great, but don’t deliver, don’t compel, don’t change—and you can’t tell till you read them.
But you can, I think, tell before you’ve finished them. A good book will have a good beginning, in general. So here’s my general rule of thumb:
For a novel, give it ten pages or so. Then pause to consider whether it’s feeling compelling, starting to deliver and at least hinting that it can change you. If it’s not doing those things, maybe put it down. Read something else.
For a non-fiction title, give it two chapters. Non-fiction sometimes takes a bit longer to get under your skin, or to build its case, or to reveal its hand. So it’s worth a bit longer before casting your judgment.
Don’t read books that aren’t good. Don’t stick with a book that someone else told you was good (after all, one person’s compelling is another person’s boredom. My mother loves Thomas Hardy. Me, not so much…)
Don’t persevere too long with a bad book. Or even an average one.
After all, you could be spending that time reading a good book.
Carl Laferton is Editorial Director at TGBC. He is author of Original Jesus, Promises Kept and The Garden, the Curtain and the Cross and series editor of the God’s Word For You series. Before joining TGBC, he worked as a journalist, a teacher, and pastored a congregation in Hull. Carl is married to Lizzie and they have two children, Benjamin and Abigail. He studied history at Oxford University.
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