What Makes a Good Book?

Lucy and Mr. Tummus from Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe
“No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”
-C.S. Lewis

A Lesson From Garth Nix’ Hand: The Connection Between Reading and Good Writing

Great writers are also great readers. They read anything and everything they can get their hands on, voraciously gobbling up the ideas of philosophers, scientists, historians, and more. And why? Because of the ideas that eventually drive their own writing.

It’s been acknowledged by contemporary society that books take readers to new places to meet new people. They give us dreams and new ways of thought. And so do non-fiction pieces, academic articles, anthologies of myth and folklore, etc. This, in turn, influences how and what we write. For example, Rick Riordan’s New Olympian books are unique in how he incorporates his study of Greco-Roman mythology, life, etc. And before Riordan, there was James Joyce’s Ulysses, which became a classic because of what he drew from Virgil’s Aeneid in myth, content and structure. And, indeed, Virgil’s Aeneid would not be the same had not Virgil read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Great writing, then, is a continuous cycle of reading and writing and more reading, one generation influencing the thought of the next.

Additionally, as discussed previously, reading also makes us better writers. Seeing how other novelists handle a plot (or fail to handle a plot) or how a group of scientists discuss their stunning new theory (or fail to illuminate any new information) teaches us how to handle these and other techniques in our own writing. So, the more we read, the more we learn about how to write, implementing these new skills into our own writing.

Do note, however, that there is a difference between what can be classified as “good” and “bad” reading. Everyone practices both types, so we do need to be slightly conscious of how we’re reading when we open a book or turn on our Kindles.

“Bad” reading is analogous to junk food—it momentarily tastes good, but does nothing for our writing, in fact, it can be detrimental at times. This is reading only for the sake of passing time and only in a few subject matters or genres. There’s little variation, and almost everything sounds, or “tastes,” the same.

Now, none of these traits are necessarily bad—after all “good” reading often includes a fair amount of reading to pass the time and for fun (if it wasn’t for these two points, we would never read at all!). We cannot, however, stop there, for “good” reading is not mindless. “Good” reading is when we subconsciously, or consciously, allow our minds to chew over what is good or bad, useful or useless in a work during the act of reading.

So, as Garth Nix’ hand suggests, read widely, and read often. And keep writing.