What makes a damned good read?

A short while ago, I realised I hadn’t read a really immersive book in what seemed like ages — I’d read good books, and interesting books, but not one of those really moreish ones that keep calling you back, and once you are back, keep making you want to read one more chapter, or just one more page, one more page, one more page.

Two books I read recently I chose specifically because I thought they’d fit this ideal. One did, one almost did. So I thought I’d try and work out what makes a damned good read from that result.

The first book was Richard Adams’ Watership Down. I hadn’t read this before, or anything else by Adams, so I don’t know why I thought it would make a really good read. There was, of course, part of my mind saying “No, no, no, it’s a cutesy book about rabbits!” But I also knew that it had been popular in its time, and continues to be, which is a good indication that it was doing something right. (Not that being popular is a good indication — books, like anything else, can just be fashionable. But staying popular, staying in print, is a good indication, I think.)

The other book, which I finished last week, was Stephen King’s Duma Key, chosen largely because some of my earliest memories of really immersive, getting-into-it reading came from Salem’s Lot, IT and The Stand. I’d pretty much given up reading King after some disappointments (The Dark Half and Bag of Bones), but some Amazon reviews implied that Duma Key (despite its bad title) might be something of a return to form.

So, what worked in these books, and what didn’t?

There are two essential aspects to a damned good read, I think. The first is getting into it, the second is staying with it. By “getting into it” I mean how well the author gets you into their world. There are a few ways they can do this. It can be through character, it can be through world-building (particularly in SF or fantasy), or it can be simply through style. All of these make up the “world of words” a writer creates, and the writer can use one or all of them to make that world inviting enough to lure you in. Obviously, the ideal is that they use all of them, but I think very few authors really do well on all three counts, and I’m happy to live with just one done well, if it’s done sufficiently well. The other point, “staying with it”, has fewer options. In fact, I think there’s really only one, for me, and that’s story. A damned good read has to have a story that keeps drawing you back. In my opinion there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, as satisfying as a well-told story.

In terms of “getting into it”, even though there aren’t really any fantastic elements in Watership Down (apart from attributing human-level intelligence, self-awareness, and communication ability to rabbits), the book has a lot in common with fantasy. In fact, it owes a lot to The Lord of the Rings specifically, not only because it’s a quest story told from the point of view of lowly (hobbit/rabbit) characters who find themselves forced into heroic roles, but because Richard Adams uses some of Tolkien’s methods for “thickening” or “deepening” the world he creates, by for instance providing his rabbits with an invented language (though his “Lapine” is limited to only a few words, and doesn’t quite have that living feel of Tolkien’s Elvish languages) and with their own culture of stories and myths. In a way, Watership Down has an advantage over truly otherworld fantasy, in that the reader knows that the world is their world, so it feels familiar, but they are experiencing it from a different point of view (that of the rabbits). Adams does a good job of re-visioning our world from this alternative perspective, not just in the way that rabbits don’t understand the human things they come across, but also because they have their own concerns, and so their own way of evaluating things. So, to Watership Down‘s rabbits, a road is at first a confusing, frightening thing, but when they realise the cars that zoom along it aren’t interested in eating them, they just cross it at full speed then forget about it. One thing Adams does well is to introduce a few concepts that relate only to rabbits, which he gives names in his invented rabbit language, making these ideas seem at once alien to us as readers but familiar to the rabbits. So, for instance, there’s a Lapine word (tharn) for that particular state of glazed, frozen panic that hits a rabbit when it is overwhelmed or exhausted, which is a danger the questing rabbits have to be constantly aware of. As Adams uses such new words sparingly, this method of getting you into his world works without seeming overly technical or geeky. In essence, he’s created a story-world which is the world we know, but skewed with a few rabbit-specific rules and ways of seeing things. Once you’ve got these in mind, you’re into his book’s world.

King, on the other hand, is writing about our world, though with the addition of some supernatural goings on. But as he introduces the supernatural slowly, that’s not the thing that gets you into his book’s world. Instead, it’s the other two things: character and style. And as Duma Key is written in the first person, with the main character narrating his own story, the two could be said to be sides of the same coin. King’s narrator, Edgar Freemantle, is a successful construction entrepreneur who, just before the start of the book, is involved in a near-fatal accident which changes his life forever. As a result, he loses an arm, and for a while has his speech impaired, so that he can’t recall some words properly. He also has angry rages that he has to learn to control, and which cost him his marriage. In a way, this sets up a few rules of character rather like those of Watership Down‘s rabbits: Edgar Freemantle’s world is one in which he finds himself with only one arm, where before he had two. This means he has to think about his life, and the world he lives in, in a different way; as do we, as readers. This might seem a crude way of creating a character, but in terms of getting you into the world of a book, it’s remarkably effective. Unless you, as reader, have just the one arm yourself, learning to think about things as a one-armed rather than a two-armed person takes some effort, and that effort is the essential magic required to get you into the book’s world. King’s writing style is, I think, one of the things that really makes his books successful. He’s managed to find a way of writing that is not only accessible, but which is downright friendly, and even chummy, while still being interesting. So, while “accessible” writing might just be clear, uncluttered, and unpretentious prose, King writes with a folksiness that doesn’t sound dry and literary, but which still has room for his use of language to be interesting. He likes, for instance, using “homely” words and phrases, like “vicey-versey”, “lookie-loos”, “boot-scootin”, and “swee’pea”. His characters “duck into the mall”, and talk of something being “bad, powerful medicine”. This suppleness of style lets King get away with blatantly literary devices, like metaphors, through sheer liveliness of delivery: “as if she had whistled for a dog and gotten a wolf”, is one example.

So both books, I think, score well on the first ingredient of being a damned good read, though in different ways.

What about “staying with it”?

Watership Down had a clearly mapped-out story. (It also has a map! Some people groan when a book has a map. I love ’em.) At the start of the book, one of the rabbits, Fiver, who is a sort of natural rabbit-shaman, has a vision of the burrow they live in being destroyed, so he and a few others set off to found a new one. So, the first story goal is clear: find a new home. The first half of the book is all about that journey, with the young rabbits having to face various dangers on the way. Once they’ve found a suitable place, the story gains a new direction: to make it a proper home, the troop of male rabbits need some doe-rabbits to share it with. (At this point, Watership Down teeters on the borders of political incorrectness. Adams gets round it by having some doe-rabbits living oppressed and unhappy in a nearby overcrowded, tyrannically-ruled burrow. If he hadn’t pushed the situation to such melodramatic heights, it’s doubtful whether the second part of the story would have seemed anywhere near as heroic as the first, with the acquisition of doe-rabbits seeming more like kidnapping.) Having acquired (liberated, not kidnapped) some does, there’s a final against-the-odds battle with the big-baddie rabbit of the piece, General Woundwort. For me, the book’s story just got more and more gripping as it went along. One of the reasons for this was that the rabbits were put into situations, or faced with problems, where I couldn’t see how they could win, but they did — and not through luck, but through wits. (The rabbits’ physical weaknesses are constantly emphasised throughout the book, making their efforts seem all the more heroic.) The thing that really made it work, for me, was how clearly the goals of the story were laid out, while the outcome never was. I knew what had to happen next, but never how it was going to be achieved. That was the thing that kept bringing me back.

Duma Key, though, didn’t have as strong a story. Rather than Watership Down‘s quest, it was a mystery. Mysteries are, in a sense, even simpler, and so potentially more powerful, story types than quests. Mysteries boil down to a single question. They’re “who killed Professor X”-type stories. With Duma Key, we have a supernatural mystery, so this means it’s a “what the Hell is going on?” type story, with the emphasis on the “Hell”. I’ve always felt that supernatural mysteries need to be very precise and finely-honed. There needs to be one, single source of mystery, one type of supernatural occurrence, and it needs to be worked with a great deal of subtlety and power. The great temptation for writers, though, is to dab on great dollops of supernatural happenings for sheer effect, and then mop up the difficulties and contradictions afterwards. And this, I think, is where Duma Key starts to fail. There are loads of different supernatural events. The narrator finds he has special insight into situations when he touches pictures with his “ghost” limb (the one he lost in the accident); meanwhile, he hears strange voices in the night sea sounds beneath the house he’s staying in; meanwhile, the overgrown south end of the island has a nasty effect on him and his daughter when they visit it; meanwhile, he sees a couple of ghosts; meanwhile, he paints pictures that allow him to see the future; meanwhile, there’s a mystery associated with an old rich lady living nearby; meanwhile, the man looking after the old rich lady has minor telepathic powers; meanwhile… And so on. Too many mysteries, too diffuse. By the time I was getting near the end of Duma Key I realised it wasn’t going to be the really satisfying solution I wanted. I’m not saying all books should tie themselves up neatly — there’s that tired old argument, “life’s not like that”, but I think that’s way beside the point — but I am saying that when an author starts to tell a story, you as reader can’t help but have certain expectations raised. Whenever an author asks a question, explicitly or implicitly, you as reader speculate on what the answer might be, then keep reading to see if you’re right. (And in part, you keep reading because you want to be given a better answer that you thought up. That’s what makes a book really satisfying.)

All this, you might argue, is a bit simplistic. And, yes it is, but I do think that the really deep pleasures of reading boil down to quite simple things.

Anyway, this blog post has gone on a bit, but I’ll add just one more thing. I think there may be a third thing that’s involved in a damned good read, and that’s what you’re left with once a book’s finished. It’s not about the world-building or the story, but something else. It’s the thing that calls you back to re-read a book, even though you know what happens. I don’t know what it is, but I suspect it is to be found in the things a book leaves unresolved. I know I said I like a neatly tied-up ending, but I mean that in story terms. Behind the story, there’s got to be a sort of magic or poetry, a deep tension, a final unresolvedness, that is the thing that is “just like life”, and which is the thing that really makes a book live. But I don’t think it’s something that is easy to spot while you’re reading. It’s the thing that makes a book keep popping up in your thinking months and years after you’ve read it. (A Wizard of Earthsea, which I must have first read before I was ten, still pops up in my head when I’m thinking about life in general, often in surprising ways.) So, at the moment, I can’t say if either Watership Down or Duma Key will have this — I very much doubt Duma Key will, though I enjoyed reading it well enough. It’s a very rare thing, and perhaps I’ll do some thinking on it and write about it in a future Mewsings.

Till then, or till something else crops up…