Monday, August 9, 2010

What Makes a Good Reading Experience?

I always say the reading experience is the most important factor to whether someone likes a book or not. Plot and characters are important, but when it comes to what I love and hate (the absolute extremes) it's the experience that makes me feel so strongly in my opinions.

For me, the reading experience is a two-parter. I only need one or the other. Both makes the book something I will push on every singe person I can find to share its awesomeness. Having neither makes the book virtually unreadable for me.

First, how does the book make me feel? And more importantly, does it make me feel anything at all? If I read an entire book and feel nothing - no love, no pain, no humor, no sadness, just nothing good or bad - then the book has failed for me. This is all subjective to each reader, and even more - it's often hard to define. Sometime a book just makes me go "woah." How do I explain that? I can't. It's just a feeling that I get when I know a book was amazing.

Second, how was the book in terms of ease? For me, an easy book is one that is heavy in dialogue and action and low on description. That's what tends to make a book better for me. Others may like heavy description, beautifully crafted sentences filled with simile and metaphor, or something else entirely. Some might only find short books to their liking, while others only enjoy very long books. Length matters nothing to me. 200 or 1000 pages, as long as those pages are showing me as opposed to telling me, I'm happy.

For me, these are the things that are universal to every book I read. If a book has an emotional effect on me and is written in a way I don't usually enjoy, I still love the book. If a book has no effect on me whatsoever, but is written in a style that I can read easily, I'll probably still like the book. If I feel nothing and dislike the style, there is no plot twist or character that could make the book good for me.

The reading experience is individual. Each book is read by every reader slightly differently. What makes a book a good experience for you? What guarantees that you'll love or hate a book regardless of plot?


  1. Great insight, Jennifer. For me, there's one simple test--when the book makes me forget I am reading and the world just melts away and that story becomes the "real world." A book that does that is just plain magic!

    Scott Nicholson

  2. I always give kudos to a book that can make me cry. Movies can me cry like *that*, but it's harder to evoke the same emotional response with mere words.

    I think the number 1 factor that will make me recommend a book is one that has kept me thinking for weeks after. A book that I was uncertain of while reading it can vault to the top of my recommended list for that one factor.

  3. Bad writing guarantees I'll hate a book, and probably never read anything by that author again. I'll have to disagree with you about "easy" books- I tend to find those boring. I'll love something if it's made me think differently, been tragic and funny, and is well written.

  4. I also like dialogue. It makes for an easy read. But sometimes the descriptions make a book really special. I don't always need easy reads, but books that take me long to read irritate me, even though they're usually better-written! :-)

  5. Cool topic! For me, a book is successful when, once I finish the book, I feel like I've lost a good friend. When I feel alone after finishing a book, I know it was a powerful novel.

  6. This *is* a really good topic. I tend to love books that cause me to forget where I am. They can do this through dialogue or beautiful prose; 100 pages or (as you said) a 1000. Inciting some sort of emotion also impacts how I feel toward the book.

    I'm currently reading Beautiful Children and it totally makes me feel uncomfortable. There are pages where I cringe at the desperation the author shows of human nature and the foulness of what we are capable of for survival (not to mention the degradation and exploitation of the porn industry). And yet it incites these powerful emotions I continue to read. The prose is at times long winded and metaphoric, the dialogue is confusing and loses me sometimes, and the time periods shift BUT it works.

  7. Wonderful ? A great reading experience is a book who's characters come "alive". When you can hear that English accent, or feel their gut-wrenching pain. If tears come rolling down my cheeks than the author really has done it. I need to feel that connection with the characters, if they are flat it usually isn't a good book for me. Characters that strike strong emotions inside me be it that I love them or hate them. And of course as Christina said, if I go far away no longer hearing life around me while I'm reading it, score!

    Tomes Devotee

  8. @author Scott Nicholson - Thank you. I love when that happens but it has been a very rare occasion since having children. Only the absolute best books can sweep me away from the whining of 2 children at hardcore temper tantrum age and another starting with the preteen angst.

    @Ronnica - I'm not a crier, so if a book makes me shed a tear it automatically seems almost amazing in my eyes. The books that make me think well after the fact - they are teh ones that kind of sneak up on me. I'll think they were okay until I find myself considering certain aspect it years later. It isn't until then that I realize that the book may have had more of an impact on me that I originally thought.

    @Jane Doe - I didn't exactly mean easy, but more easy for me - my personal preference when it comes to writing style.

    I think much of bad writing is subjective. Most truly atrocious writing is weeded out by agents and publishers. What's left is often considered wonderful by some and horrible by others. I think most of these opinions are based on personal preferences, even if we don't consciously consider it.

    @leeswammes - I enjoy longer, heavily descriptive books if I read them a little at a time, putting them aside for "fun" reads every once in a while. Some of the best books are slow reads, but I know I would quit if I didn't take a break for something light every once in a while.

    @Emidy - That's a good one. I know I've looked at a book I was reading, seen I only have 50 pages left and felt sad that it was going to end soon. To feel that way before I even get to the outcome - to want the book to go on for much longer before I get the resolution I'm anxious for - is definitely a sign of an enjoyable read.

    @christina - That's totally what I mean. If a book makes me uncomfortable or anything that causes a physical reactions (squirming in my seat, wringing my hands, having my mouth gape open), the writing style and my personal preferences don't matter - I'm hooked.

    @luv46kdz - I've found I can be very empathetic and even cry for characters that I don't particularly care about. If the writer can evoke an emotional response for a character I don't care about, it's very impressive to me.

  9. Great post! I'm especially sensitive to the emotional experience. I'm looking for a book to make me FEEL SOMETHING--positive or negative, comfortable or not. Some of my fave books (Beasts, by Joyce Carol Oates...What I Loved, by Siri Hustvedt) have made me supremely uncomfortable. But the writer was so overwhelmingly talented to unseat me like that, I have to give them a round of applause.

  10. The most important thing to me is having characters I feel strongly attached to..either because I love them, or (more likely) I hate them. Characters should become your new best friends or your new worst enemy. A good book, and a great reading experience, is one that I refuse to put down because I can't think about anything else until I know what happened to my characters.

  11. I honestly can't get over a bad main character(s). If I want to strangle the character I will hate the book regardless of whether it has every thing else going in its favor. On the other hand if I adore the main character(s) I will put up with a LOT and still enjoy the book.

    For instance in Spy Glass I was getting more and more irritated by how the plot was turning out, but I love Opal (the main char) so I forgave her everything and enjoyed the book by ignoring all the elements that ticked me off (like her choice in a partner). On the other hand, in Fire Study, I wanted to murder Yelena because she was acting a complete A$$, but the plot itself was going where I wanted it to go, but I couldn't enjoy the book overall.

    A more extreme example is my intense hatred for the Harry Potter books, which if you took Harry Potter out of the equation, that series--the world, the dynamics, the conflicts--is almost tailor-made for me. But I hate Harry Potter and I hate how JKR writes him (or writes in general, but I've put up with worse writing before and still enjoyed the books somewhat).

  12. I agree with what you said about the story making you feel. No point if I don't care what happens.

    But when it comes to the writing. I prefer a balance between the simple and beautiful. Too much of either and I might get bored.

  13. What a great topic! I agree with you that the length doesn't really matter. For me, as long as it's engaging I'll stick with it and the rest of the world will melt away. I just don't want to get stuck in description after description about things that don't matter. Stick to the story and make it wonderful and I'll stick with you as long as it takes!

  14. Great post! For me it usually comes down to language and characters. I don't need a strong plot, but I do need well developed characters and at least some of them have to be noble or I feel I'm wasting my time. But for me, language is the thing. I adore Jane Austen's English, and C.S. Lewis puts words together with stunning clarity and logic. With some authors I can feel rhythym in their prose; with others it's a hint of the wind or the ocean. Hemmingway's books are breathable. I love beautiful words strung together and I enjoy sharp wit. When I find a treasure of a sentence I will go back to it over and over to experience the thrill again. Great language and rounded characters can save just about any book for me, but it can have the best of plots and be destroyed by poor language and characters. I will stop rambling now. Promise.

  15. I hadn't ever really thought about this before, and I am surprised to find it harder to answer than I thought it would be. I think I have to really think about this before I can come up with my answer. That probably wasn't a very useful contribution to the discussion, but thanks for getting me thinking!

  16. @Andi - Uncomfortable can be very good. If a writer can turn my stomach or make my skin crawl, that's just as enjoyable as making me cry or laugh.

    @ksbooks - That's a great point. When the characters become "your" characters, you've obviously been effected by the book.

    @Lexie - lol. I've probably mentioned it before, but if a character I'm supposed to love pisses me off, I will despise the book. I'm good with characters that are written specifically for you to hate them, but when I'm supposed to root for them and they are awful, it ruins the entire book for me.

    I have to ask - what is it about Harry Potter that you hate? How would you have rather had him be?

    @Kah Woei - A lot of people like beautiful writing. I'm just not one of those people. Unless there is something else there to really draw me in, I find it very difficult to be excited by it.

    @Amused - That's a great way to put it - "description after description about things that don't matter". Do I need 6 pages describing a character's new dress, especially if it has no bearing on the actual story beyond the fact that she changed her clothes?

    @Ordinary Reader - It feels like such a sin to admit it, but language, as you mean it, doesn't factor in much for me. While it's something I definitely notice, even if a book sounds like it was written by a 3rd grader, but invokes an emotional response or I can actually feel the tension, I enjoy it.

    I think that a lot of writers try too hard to write "beautiful" sentences and too many fail miserably. It's certainly wonderful when you find a writer that has a knack for constructing wonderful sentences and can also carry a well thought out plot, but more often the wonderful plot gets obscured by the attempt at writing "well".

    @Becky - You're welcome. I think most of us have certain things that we look for in a novel subconsciously. It was kind of hard to explain what I love, regardless of genre or plot, because a lot of it seems like something that's just there or isn't. It's one of those - I can't explain it, but I know it when I see it - things that differ from reader to reader.

  17. Great post! I'm like you, I want to feel something!

    For me, it is important that I learn. I see myself as a constant student, and I've learned that reading helps me with life experiences. It opens my mind to different ways of thinking and understanding the world.

  18. @Missie - Thanks! I really enjoy learning something from books, but I personally don't find it necessary to my enjoyment. I think of it more as a bonus.