What makes a book a good “read”? This has been a question I’ve been pondering as I’ve been reading Ron Chernow’s Grant. As I write I’m 680 pages into the book and into Grant’s presidency. There are about 300 pages to go, and this is one book I don’t want to end. I contrast this with some 200 page books where i get to page 50 and wonder when it will end.
I’ve come up with several things that I think play into making a book of any length and any type a great read:
First of all is the choice of a subject or plot focus. Grant as a person makes for a fascinating subject. Son and son-in-law of two overbearing fathers. Resigned his position in the Army due to drinking problems, which dogged his heels all his life. A failure in civilian life in the years leading up to the war. Yet he comes alive with the Civil War as a leader who doesn’t worry about what others could do to him, but wants Confederate officers to worry about him. He takes the fight to his enemies. He finds an aide, John Rawlins, who acts as his conscience, keeping him more or less sober. He fights Lee fiercely, wearing him down, and treats him with grace at Appomattox. He sees Blacks as people, and embraces Emancipation and Reconstruction, when so many, even in the North, resist it. He is a man of integrity, yet can be strangely blind to others of lesser character. And on it goes.
A good writer finds or creates interest in her plot or subject. In one sense, almost anything can be interesting if the writer finds what is interesting in it. What a good writer seems to do is tease out the richness, the fascination, the goodness, and flaws of his character or characters. This is far more than a bare narrative of Grant’s life–one event after another. It is an exploration of what it was to be Grant. Chernow’s obviously thought about the strength’s and flat sides of Grant–how what worked on the battlefield and didn’t in political office. He considers the people around Grant, and their influence without submerging the influence of Grant himself.
Then there is the question of pace. How can someone write a thousand page book without being tedious? It comes down to keeping things moving. Chernow always seems to move on before I start wishing he would. Sometimes this is not the case with books that are considered “great.” Readers often complain they are hard to read, even if they explore fundamental matters of the human condition. I’m not sure what to say about this except that perhaps there are times when what is being said is of such importance that we hang in there, even if we wish it had been written with greater facility.
Finally, I think it comes down finally to good sentences. As a reader, what one notices is that you don’t bog down in the text but just move down the page. Meaning comes through clearly, and the sentences aren’t too complex. You don’t keep going back asking, what did I just read?
A good read is a pleasure. We often spend far more on a good meal or performance than we do on a good book that affords hours of pleasure and enriches our lives. I’m coming more and more to believe it is money well spent, a way to say “thank you” to authors, publishers, and booksellers who bring this goodness into our lives.