Musings on What is a “Good Book”?


I was once struck speechless by a young man who bragged that he had not read a single book in his lifetime. I cannot imagine a life without books. Though my desire for a career as a librarian was never fullfilled, I eventually became a bookdealer, which I suppose was the better path after all.

I am a slow, absorbant reader, yet even by modest calculations, with 66 years of reading behind me, I have read at least 1,320 books. I feel I have earned the right to judge what is a good book. My sister, a faster reader, has read more books than I, possibly twice as many. It’s funny, but you can be sure that if I like a book, she won’t.

So, what exactly is “a good book”? How do you define that? A person’s evaluation of a book depends on many factors: how many they have read (for a comparison), what they have read, their stage of life, age and life experience, their gender and race, their knowledge and prior feelings about the subject of the book and, of course, personal taste. Obviously, the neophyte reader, or the reader self-limited to one category will also be limited in their ability to judge.

I will accept “it was a good book” because it may very well have been a good book for that reader. And “the best book I’ve ever read,” may also be a true statement. But I no longer read a book based on the recommendation of just one person unless I know more about that reader. Often I zip over to to compare the critical opinions of thousands of other readers. A 4.9 out of five is convincing. And yet I am frequently the one person who hates a book while thousands swoon over it.

To give you my opinion ofwhat makes a good book?”: I believe every “good” book must fall into one of these categories. The best are in more than one. It must educate, entertain, touch your soul, lead you to understand, or inspire you with the beauty of language. Here are some of my favorite books and writers:

1. (Mind) It must educate

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

John Adams by David McCullough

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

Emerson: the Mind on Fire by Robert Richardson (Or, Thoreau: A Life of the Mind)

The Lost Art of Listening by Michael Nichols

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

Rats by Robert Sullivan

Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art by Barbara Elleman

The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan (or others by him)

The Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan

Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson

The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin

The Mole People by Jennifer Toth

The Undaunted Garden by Lauren Springer

2. (Mind) it must entertain/provide escape, be fascinating or funny

Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling

Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon

Farley Mowat

Stiff by Mary Roach

The Mirror by Marlys Millhiser

The Cats of Lamu by Jack Couffer

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Buttons in the Back by Elizabeth Kirkland

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein

Dune by Frank Herbert

Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott

3. (Heart) it must touch your soul

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

The Bones of Plenty by Lois Phillip Hudson

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay

The Daughters of Copper Woman by Anne Cameron

Windowlight by Anne Nietzche

Sara Teasdale

Mary Oliver

Robert Frost

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

The Root Worker by Rainelle Burton

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Kissing the Virgin’s Mouth by Donna Gershten

Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters

Louise Erdrich

A Diary of the Century by Edward Robb Ellis

4. (Understand)

Party of One by Anneli Rufus

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls

Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

1984 by George Orwell

A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi

The Unredeemed Captive by John Demos

Barbara Kingsolver

Beautiful Joe by Marshall Saunders

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

5. (Beauty) the writing must be lyrical, magnetic, entrancing, inspirational

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

Illumination in the Flatwoods by Joe Hutto

Anais Nin

Loren Eiseley

Toni Morrison

N. Scott Momaday

The Meadow by James Galvin

Michael Pollan

Antoine de St. Exupery

Nikos Kazantzakis

These are some of my choices.  Please join the discussion…



One thought on “Musings on What is a “Good Book”?

  1. Thank you for this,Cynthia. Per usual your observations and accompanying list of titles reflect your extraordinary depth and range of thought.
    I would suggest the following:
    The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico (my favorite)
    The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein –I do not allow myself to cry, but this one nearly broke me.
    In God We Trust All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories, both by Jean Shepherd –perfectly delightful nostalgic mid-American humor.
    Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era by Sterling North –It’s not called a Memoir of a Better Era for nothing.
    The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway –!!!

    On the darker side:
    The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson –One of the most chilling novels ever written, relying heavily on atmosphere and psychological ambiguity rather than heavy-handed shock for its effects. A very disturbing piece of literature.


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