My favorite college prof told me that as a literature student, I had to forget “good.” Other people with far better credentials than some wide-eyed sophomore lit major had already determined that the books I was reading were good—and worth of being included in the literary canon.
I really connected with this prof’s approach to reading—I wound up taking about five classes with the guy, everything from literary theory to Brit lit to sci fi. And in each class, instead of deciding whether or not I thought a book was good, I tried to dig out why others had. Was it the “universal truths”? The literary techniques? Why did this particular book survive to be taught, while others fell to the wayside?
Even though I finally stopped reading with a pencil in hand (in order to take oodles of notes down the margins) when I graduated, I still do generally read in the same manner: I forget good. I think, “An agent decided to rep this. A pub house shelled out money to acquire it. Sales and marketing teams were sent out to get booksellers excited about the book. Why? Why did an editor acquire this book, and not the others in the towering stack on his / her desk?”
I rarely, if ever, give up on a book—I might skim, but I never quit completely. I just have to get to the bottom of that question I learned to ask nearly twenty years ago…Not is it good, but why did someone else say it was good? Every author has some admirable quality: Great dialogue, pulse-pounding plot twists, fabulously flawed (and ultra-human) characters. I feel it’s my job, in a sense, to find the good in each book I read.
…There are points, though, when pure enjoyment takes over. When the reader in me pushes the writer / old lit student out of the way. In those beautiful instances, I find myself asking why that happened. Often, though, there is no technique I can point to definitively. Those are the times, it seems, when magic takes over.