Essays & Articles

One Crucial Criterion for a Good Book

I have a theory that the more imagination a book requires, the better the book typically is.


In adult fiction, the airport page-turners generally tell you everything you need to know, and everything you want to know. You don’t have to spend much time puzzling out motivations or deeper meanings; the authors tells you. You also don’t generally spend a lot of time thinking about what Jason Bourne would do if his father had shown up again at the end of the book. You don’t really care once you know that he succeeded in killing Mr. Gofuchu with a hatchet-to-the-brain (disclosure: I’ve never read a Bourne book, so this is an arbitrary and unfair example).


But in more serious adult fiction, your imagination is at work. When reading Ulysses, you are forced to imagine what this word could mean in relation to this apparently unrelated one, or to visualize Dublin as Stephen walks around it. Even when reading Zadie Smith’sOn Love, you do tend to sit around thinking about the relationships, wondering what you would say to Monty if you had a chance, or thinking about how Howard Belsey really reminds you of your… well, I’ll keep that one inside.


The same is true of children’s fiction. Where the Wild Things Are is so wonderful because of all the imaginative work it invites a child to do (and for a thousand other reasons, of course; but look for a later reflection on that). Matt Christopher books are a great time, but they tend not to stay with you because they lack the evocativeness of greater fiction (I was devoted to them as a child anyway).


I think it has something to do with closure. “Closure” is a term from graphic novels that I learned from Scott McCloud’s modern classic, Understanding Comics. The idea of closure is this: when you’ve got one panel where Superman is winding up to hit Lex Luther, and in the next Luther is flying across the room, your mind supplies the middle panel where Luther’s getting punched. You may almost see that punch and not even be aware that you, the reader, are providing the closure. Closure happens in all reading, because your imagination is forced to do so much of the work (which is why it’s better for your brain, I’d argue, to read a trashy novel than see a trashy movie). You are imagining Bourne bury his hatchet in Mr. Gofuchu’s head. But Ulysses requires so much more closure.


But why does more imaginative work make a book good? That seems to be an arbitrary connection. It isn’t. By taking the book in, by having to manipulate it with your mind, it goes much deeper into your consciousness. The deeper a book is able to penetrate into your consciousness, the more likely it is to affect you, to move you, to shake and shuffle and transform you. And if a book has affected, moved, shaken, shuffled, and transformed, it is, most likely, very, very good.

Sign up for Adam’s newsletter by entering your info below: