Can a book be too “good”?

I just read a good book. In fact, I couldn’t put it down. High praise, considering the clamor of the internet, work, cable TV, family life and everything else a mere book has to compete with in order to hold my attention. Right?

Within forty-eight hours of reading the first page, I had finished it. Four hundred and fifty-three pages.

I closed the book with admiration for the cleverness of the author in stringing one suspenseful situation after another, right to the (thank goodness!) happy end. There was never a dull moment. In fact, she’d achieved what writing experts were advocating, in the writer’s workshops I recently attended.

“Wow,” I thought, “way to go.”

Except.

I felt just a little … cheated.

What the heck? I’d just had a helluva good read, hadn’t I? The language was artful, the characters were evocative, and … you know. It was a page-turner.

“But …” said some wistful and slightly bewildered part of me, “I don’t feel like I know the characters.”

There were no slow spots where people were talking, or reminiscing, unless they led directly to the next twist, the next catastrophe. There were precious few good “stopping places,” where I could put the book down knowing the characters would be okay at least until tomorrow, when I’d have time to enjoy curling up with the book again.

By the end, I mainly knew how these characters looked, felt, or acted when gasping in horror, running for their lives, fighting to the death, or passionately embracing. I felt like you do two hours after a hot fudge sundae: It was good but it was over too soon, and looking back on it you feel a little woozy.

Upon reflection, it made me think of fish ladders. Salmon don’t like ladders if each step is the same height, and there’s only a few feet between one step and the next. In such a ladder, there are no pools where a tired salmon can rest. Now salmon are strong beyond belief. Don’t get me wrong: They can do it. Likewise, I’m a strong reader. I can power my way up … er, through four hundred pages pausing only to sleep, if I need to.

But … in the case of this well-crafted, creative, and exciting book, I was so caught up in the plot, I felt — after all that — I barely knew the protagonist. I had a general notion about her love interest … knew next to nothing about her best friend … next to nothing about the villain … and nothing at all about most of the other characters. I understood their roles in the main character’s life, of course. But no idea what made them tick.

(Disclaimer: This was not a “thriller,” or even “romantic suspense.” It was a fantasy novel, a popular and skillful sample of one of my favorite genres.)

Bottom line: I don’t always want to plunge through a book, gulping mouthfuls of plot, spilling details and descriptions all down my front in a mad rush to CONSUME THIS BOOK!

Is that what defines a “good book” these days?

101_0374I began to think about my favorite books from a decade or three ago: those well-worn volumes on my bookshelves, whose covers attest to my familiarity with the contents. In many cases, I can thumb through and find my favorite passages because I know where they are.

These books had slow spots. Descriptions, dialogue that didn’t always leave me gasping or guffawing. Sometimes they left me nodding … or smiling … or puzzling. Sometimes they even had *whispers guiltily* digressions. Sometimes I’d put down the book – right in the middle of a chapter! – open my journal, or a reference book, and explore an idea.

I begin to wonder, in this frenetic, information-driven age, if we are making a mistake about what we want from our books. What if, instead of being “unable to put it down,” we were “looking forward to getting back to it?”

As a reader, I might occasionally enjoy a passionate, weekend-long fling. But I begin to think that the book that will bring me my next long-term relationship with an author will not be a “page-turner.”

How about you? Do you love suspense and a “quick read”? Or do you like to take it slow? I’d love to read your answer in the comments!

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