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What Makes For A Good Book?

This week over at Slate, William Deresiewicz wrote a take down of Marjorie Garber’s new book, The Use and Abuse of Literature. On Garber’s tidy website, it’s billed as “a tour de force about our culture in crisis,” akin to such cris de coeur for the American intelligentsia as Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism and Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. In the book, Garber, an English professor at Harvard, discusses the dueling ideas of pleasure and usefulness in literature, while asking a slew of questions about how and why we read and engage with novels. You can read an excerpt from the book on NPR’s website here.

Deresiewicz argues that “devising a test of literary merit is not actually that hard. Here it is: Would you read the thing again? Not for a course or a monograph, but just because you want to.” This is a similar argument that Stephen King made in an interview in The Paris Review: “If a novel is not an entertainment, I don’t think it’s a successful book.” He describes giving a speech at a National Book Award ceremony and then being dismissed by Shirley Hazzard, the winner of the fiction award that year. He says, “The keepers of the idea of serious literature have a short list of authors who are going to be allowed inside, and too often that list is drawn from people who know people, who go to certain schools, who come up through certain channels of literature. And that’s a very bad idea — it’s constraining for the growth of literature.”

Do you ever feel guilty for not having read Ulysses? I attempted to tackle the thing in a book club once and we all failed. The same goes for The Man Without Qualities; I couldn’t even make it through the first book, and am still kicking myself about it three years later. I still haven’t gotten around to reading Anna Karenina, either. And, since I didn’t major in English and also went to school in the age of cultural studies, I’ve read more texts analyzing landmark novels of yore then, ahem, the actual novels they reference. This seems shameful to admit. Sometimes I forget, though, that the actual point of reading literature is to enjoy it and look forward to the next book on a list, rather than have some unread novels be these fat, unwieldy albatrosses around my neck.

Dear readers, what are your criteria for what makes a good book? Furthermore, do you think there should be a list of books people have read in high school and college, or do you think this idea of a canon is elitist and counterproductive? Are you the type of person who judges a potential partner by what is on his or her bookshelf (or Kindle), or are you, like Lionel Richie, easy like Sunday morning? Let us know in the comments section. We’re curious.