What is your criteria for a good book? Apart from wanting it to be well written and presented, what is it that you look for? Entertainment value? Information? Emotion, relaxation or a momentary escape from the humdrum round of daily life? Probably a bit of all of those, and few other, more personal preferences too.
I read a lot. These days, not quite so avidly and with more discrimination than in the past when I would devour anything that came with words between covers. The libraries I first began frequenting as a small child were places where a thousand suns lay hidden between dusty pages, waiting for the hand and eye that would release them to blaze through the imagination.
It taught me a lot; reading across multiple genres, many eras and styles, I learned about people and the way they thought, acted and reacted. I learned about places and times I would never otherwise have known. I learned about language and its beauty and subtlety as well as its potential to be both abusive and controlling, influencing individuals and societies for good or ill. They were, in their own way, all good books… they kept my attention from beginning to end… not a difficult task with a voracious reader… and from each I garnered another seed of knowledge.
These days I read less…not only because the hours in a day are finite, but because the books I read engage me in a different way. Many are for research for my own writing, though I reserve the right to read for pure indulgence just before bed. But whether fact or fiction, the books I read have one thing in common that, for me, defines a good book… they make me think. And a really good book will make me think so much I’ll pick it up and read it again… and again.
If, as Stephen King says, ‘good books do not give up all their secrets at once,’ then the best books, little by little as you unravel the layers of meaning within them, lead the mind down pathways of imagination to a budding realisation of concepts which, though perhaps not new in human terms, are new to you… a journey from mere knowledge to understanding.
There have been a number of scientific studies in the news over the past few years, showing the links between reading, social aptitude and the ability to empathise with others. The value of reading as a life skill, particularly for children, has been much underestimated during the past few decades as technological advances have filled our lives with easier entertainment that place fewer demands on mind and attention.
A page penned in minutes may have taken years to write, begun long before the thought of writing ever entered the author’s head. Who knows how long such seeds have lain hidden, quietly germinating in the shadows before their first shoots made themselves known to the conscious mind?
Within the pages of a book may be found an endless draught to at least slake, if it cannot quench, the thirst for ideas, dreams and wonder. I agree with Thomas Carlyle, that ‘a good book is the purest essence of a human soul’, where the writer pours onto the page the thoughts and passion that he may never be able to voice. It is easy to see how, within the foxed and tattered pages of even the humblest volume, we may stumble across those seeds of knowledge and wisdom that we can nurture within our own minds and hearts and which, in their turn, bring us to a greater understanding of our fellow man, our world, and ultimately of ourselves.