Friday, April 16, 2010

Essay from the past

I confess: I am a hoarder.

It's not to the point where you can't move around most rooms in my house or anything. But I watch those TV programs and I hear the people talk about how they can't throw out a broken lamp because their grandmother gave it to them or that it would be wasteful to toss items they no longer use, and I understand.

I like stuff. Old, broken stuff. Stuff I'll never use. Stuff I used to use. You get the drift.

But, my husband is not a hoarder.

So it was that we were clearing out our attic.

In a long-forgotten trunk I found essays I had written in high school. (I know, sad, but true.)

One of those musty papers, dated Oct. 3, 1983, was titled, "What is a good book?"

Here it is, in all its over-written glory!

Upon turning that final page of a book and snapping it shut, the reader will either breathe a sigh of satisfaction and smile or emit a groan of disgust and grimace. What makes a book leave its reader fulfilled in some small way? Disregarding personal tastes, because not everyone will like even a book considered to be a masterpiece, nearly all agree that a good book should have a universal theme, an interesting plot and believable characters.

A universal theme should speak to all, no matter the time or place. "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte is a book with one such theme. The story of the life of a young girl on the moors of England speaks the same message of the effects on childhood on later life to a 60-year-old woman living in the United States in 1983 as it would have to a 20-year-old man living in Italy in 1920.

Another timeless theme is embodied in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter." The danger of beholding and criticizing sin in others but not in one's self is as great now as it was in Puritan New England. The author of a good book locates man in his universe and illustrates a basic belief common to all.

The ability to create a believable world is rare, but it is an essential part of a good book. The theme will never be passed on to the reader if there is nothing in the plot to hold his interest until the end of the book. Author Daphne DuMaurier has mastered the art of suspense as is evidenced in her novel "Rebecca." No one having read more than the first chapter would have the strength of mind to discontinue reading and not find out what will befall Mr. and Mrs. DeWinter, the novel's star-crossed lovers. Suspense is not the only element of plot that will grasp a reader's interest. The storyline of "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" by Thornton Wilder contains virtually no suspense since the outcome is known at the beginning. What holds the reader's attention is a kind of reverse suspense. One wants to discover the events which led to the result, instead of vice versa.

A possible definition for a good book is one in which the reader becomes totally and completely absorbed in empathy for the characters. This must be the most difficult thing for an author to accomplish - to create characters which seem to live and breathe, characters which think and speak as complexly as people, and characters which retain the ability to surprise and astound. Charles Dickens was a master of characterization. "A Tale of Two Cities" contains a vast gallery of characters, all distinct and complex entities. From the split personality of Doctor Manette to the avenging wickedness of Madame Defarge to the selfless love of Sydney Carton, Dickens' characters spring to life on the pages of his book. Margaret Mitchell's characters also seem to have a life of their own. The selfish and impetuous Scarlett O'Hara and the adoring, masculine Rhett Butler have been made immortal in the novel, "Gone with the Wind."

What is a good book, then? It is one which has credible characters, an interesting plot, and a universal theme, as has been aforementioned. But there is something more. There is that essential artistic quality which enables an author to depict the characters, themes, and plots that are products of his imagination in such a manner that they exist as real people, ideas, and situations for the reader. It is this undefinable characteristic which earmarks a truly good book and evokes the sigh of satisfaction at its completion.

- Tricia Ambrose

Post Script from Jason: One final treat for the weekend. The News-Herald Book Club explains how it can make your reading experience more enjoyable in video.


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