What do you look for in a good book? (Bonus: in a good TV show, comic, movie)

Recently in the thread about non-readers, the subject of quality reading was brought up. My own criteria for what I look for in a good book was set in my mid-teens, and has remained fairly constant for the last 20 years.

Meanwhile my standards on what makes a good movie, or TV show give still in flux.

My first love in books was the mystery genre. Starting as a kid reading Enid Blyton’s Five Find-Outters to that Alfred Hitchcock’s Jupitor Jones series where the teens win the use of a limo, to finally discover Agatha Christie.

I guess my main desire when reading those mysteries was that all the pieces should be there all along for me to have noticed, but put together by the investigator to be revalatory. I was amazed that Agatha Christie could do this again and again in every book: surprise me with the same pieces of knowledge that I never would have put together the same way.

Science Fiction
Someone recommended Asimov’s I, Robot to me as a group of short stories with a nice mystery component. This was my gateway to science fiction. The Robot series led me to the Empire Series, leading to the Foundation Series, which tied all the way back to the Robot series by the end. I was hooked on Science Fiction now.

In just a few years of reading my older brothers’ recommendation of science fiction, I soon came to a pretty nicely formed idea of what exactly I looked for in a good science fiction book: does this book give me new ideas about or new ways of looking at the world around me? If not, then it might still be entertaining, but not really worth my time.

The book that really solidified that view for me was when I read Jurassic Park in preparation for the movie coming out that summer. Sure it was a wild ride; very entertaining from beginning to end, but it was pure entertainment fluff, I concluded. It didn’t really expand my mind or give me much food for thought beyond “I wonder how extensively he researched this book and if dinosaur behavior was really like this”.

Good characters also became important the more I read, but they were never as important. For example, Alan Dean Foster had this trilogy where the first book was almost purely a thought provoking exercise, but with very few main characters or a narrative I could sink my teeth into. Mankind was discovered by two sets of aliens at war over the galaxy, one sort of a democratic coalition and the other a more dictatorial empire. Both sides were shocked at the human capacity for violence. The second and third books had better characters and an actual exciting plot, but it’s really the ideas behind that first book that stuck with me.

Other Genres
Even as I read other genres, and even nonfiction, the standard I was judging Science Fiction by remained a good one. If a book got in the mind of a character in a way that made me see the world in a different way. If the book presented ideas that I’d never thought of before. If the book had a character who looked at music in a way I’d never considered before, etc, then it was a good book and worth my time, even if it was less entertaining than another book which was exciting but didn’t make me grow as a person at all.

Now, looking back, this seems like a pretty lofty standard. Especially when compared to my criteria for most movies. I think it has to do with the time commitment.

Nonfiction is interesting because in a way the ideas and concepts can be addressed directly. One of the very smartest men I ever met used to be a very prolific reader and he said he only read nonfiction now because it was the most efficient at conveying of ideas and concepts. More efficient? Yes, I can see that. Not as powerful though. I think as humans we seem to be wired to be very receptive to storytelling as a way of conveying ideas. I haven’t read it yet myself, but I’m betting Atlus Shrugged has converted more people to Objectivism than any philosophy paper or nonfiction book on the subject.

So fellow readers, what about you? What do you look for in a good book? Do you judge different genres in their own unique way? What about movies? TV shows? Comics?

For me the big thing is: are there ideas and concepts that the book is exploring. This holds true for both fiction and non-fiction. In fiction high concept science fiction is my favorite genre, it’s why I think as highly of Heinlein for example. As for non-fiction a dry recounting of facts might be useful, in certain contexts, but makes for a dreadful read. Recently I read a book on the American Revolutionary War, around the concept that the war, and it’s conclusion, were a byproduct of inept management and stubbornness on the part of King George and his Prime Ministers. It explores the historical record in light of this perspective, and as such says some interesting things about the history. Simply recounting the inquiry of Benjamin Franklin by the house of lords isn’t as interesting as exploring Lord North’s position in the charade and why he acted as he did during the inquiry.

Admittedly there is very little other consistent feature of my preferred reading. There are many books where the characters and dialogue are perfunctory at best. Asimov in particular stands out as poor in this area. If there is some interesting ideas being explored I will look past that. Equally true is that a book that has simple concepts, but does a deep exploration of characters, is one I can enjoy greatly. So really there has to be something I can mentally chew on and analyze. If there is something interesting there, I’ll find something to enjoy.

I like my reading just how I like my tv series and movies.

Some heavy in depth stuff with meaning, some whodunnit, some total pop corn action stuff and some scary.

I don’t need nor want every book i read to be the next classic. A decent storyline helps but sometimes all out action works for me for example David Gunns Death head series or Dan Abnetts War Hammer series. I also enjoy series of books that evolve over time. For example John Sandford with his Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers stuff or even Michael Connolly and Harry Bosch. I also look for something different like John Connolly and his Charlie Parker novels which you don’t get in TV shows that much.

I also enjoy reading things you don’t get in movies or tv shows like horror and decent sci-fi that isn’t restricted by budget or show length.

One thing I find harder and harder to enjoy is crime, I have read so many that normally after a third of the book I have figured it out and getting new and unusual ways of surprising me is becoming more difficult. I have found authors who write books that aren’t in a series have started to fair better in this, for example RJ Ellory who’s stuff is very good and slightly off center appeals more as I have gotten older.

I like it when characters develop well and you see them as real people, but far too often it’s the broken character, who’s divorced or hates people or who no likes that plays center stage and this has gotten a bit by the numbers. Really the story should tell it’s self without the need for broken leads and weak characters, flaws are fine but really it’s a bit like the romantic horror we get these days, far too simple and lacking any depth a sort of been there and done that.

Saying all that, ebooks and cheaper novels through Amazon along with self publishing really has added a massive choice even if some of it is really poor stuff.

I am a massive fan of vampire Books ever since reading and watching Salem’s Lot as a child, not the romantic stuff even though I did enjoy Anne Rice’s Lestat books really I love angry, nasty agressive murdering vampires but finding decent ones among the dross is not easy

For fiction, my primary interest is world-building. Series like Banks’ Culture, Bakker’s Prince of Nothing or Howard’s old Conan stuff just lock me in. The writing has to be at least tolerable, and good characters are very important. But an interesting world is the sine qua non in my view.

That’s a tough question and I imagine that unless you have very refined tastes and can ONLY enjoy one type of literature, then your response (like most of the responses so far) will be “it depends.” As others noted, I can enjoy a good, stupid, action book (or romance, or pot-boiler or whatever) at times, but that doesn’t mean that I am adverse to a more challenging work from time to time. Likewise, there will be times when I’ll put aside a light-but-enjoyable book because I need something a little meatier to occupy my brain. What I can stomach depends on the time of year, my workload, whether I’ve got other projects going on, etc., etc.

As for what makes a great book, that’s not something I can typically decide on the spot. My long-term metric is simply: “do I remember it?” See, my memory is pretty bad. I am not one of those guys who can tell you the plot of every Star Trek episode I’ve seen, or remember the details of every book that I’ve read. I regularly find myself being told by a friend with better recall than mine that I read X or Y book a few years back, and I’ll simply have no memory of reading it at all, even when given a synopsis of the plot.

And that’s not a terrible thing. Reemul mentioned Abnett’s “Gaunts Ghosts” WH40K novels, a series of books that I read and enjoyed. I’ll pick up another one of them if/when he gets around to writing one… but I have to say, I don’t know that I can remember even the wide-scope plot of a single one of them. They’re just entertaining fluff. Now don’t get me wrong here, there are scenes or characters from those novels that were unique and clever enough to stick in my memory, but they are just fleeting sparks.

On the other hand, a good book (like a good movie or TV show) has themes, characters, or situations that were so thought-provoking, novel, or shocking that they are burned into my brain and I can remember pretty much everything about them, no matter how long ago I read the story. Sometimes, “memorable” is not the same as “good”, but I’ve found that by and large they occupy the same space

I think this goes towards another one of my main requirements for a good book: the author (or maybe the author/editor) must be smarter than I am. That is NOT a high bar to clear.

I find it really hard to enjoy a book or a TV show/movie without liking at least someone close to being a main character. Someone you care about. It doesn’t mean that character has to be a “good” character, but well written, so that you understand their motivations.

In books I like sharp writing at the sentence and paragraph level. I also don’t want a lot of description of the scenery or the way people look. Let’s get on with the story, please.

I like a lot of urban fantasy these days. It just appeals to me.

I also prefer third-person over first-person, although I love some first-person books.

And good dialog as a way of moving the story along. I like that. That’s the show vs. tell rule in action.

The entry point is always quality at the base level. Like Mark says, if I can’t stomach the basic writing quality then I can’t read the book. If a movie or tv show has obviously awful production values, the same. After that I’ll give it a try, and if it doesn’t grab me in the first fifty or one hundred pages, I put it down with no regrets.

That’s interesting, I found that Chrichton’s theme was pretty overt, in that people tend not to respect power they didn’t earn. I recall one of the characters talking about how a man who has spent his life learning and mastering a martial art will not go around picking fights because he has earned his power and respects what it can do to others, whereas a man who simply goes out and buys a gun may be far more willing to use it because he did not “earn” the power it gives and does not necessarily understand or respect the damage it can do.

I saw it as a commentary on science providing capabilities to man that exceed mankind’s eithical/moral ability to handle them. And then getting people eaten by dinosaurs.

On topic, what I need from my fiction is engagement. I need to like (at least a few of) the characters, I need to believe that what they are doing is significant, and I need to understand the world they are living in. Without that, I quickly lose interest. With that, genre almost doesn’t matter.

However, I have learned that the “literature” section of the book store has less of what I am looking for, since a lot of them are about relationships between unlikable people doing pointless things for no real reason other than they need to act out their miserable impulses on each other. Or worse, they are wallowing in their internal dialogue.

The most recent example for me was The Husband’s Secret, which I saw had been recommended on a website. Hated it. The story’s chapters alternated between three or four female viewpoint characters, who, to a woman, were all self obsessed worriers. I did not enjoy visiting their worlds, and didn’t care how they dealt with their problems. Hated. It.

I find it really hard to enjoy a book or a TV show/movie without liking at least someone close to being a main character. Someone you care about. It doesn’t mean that character has to be a “good” character, but well written, so that you understand their motivations.

I hear this expressed a lot and I don’t get it at all. Lots of works of art have protagonists whose motivations are unsympathetic or even unintelligible. There’s obvious stuff like The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, whose narrator is basically a psychopath with a hardline Calvinist worldview, but to a slightly lesser degree you could say the same about A Confederacy of Dunces, or Othello, or The Man Who Wasn’t There, or countless other stories. I don’t see why you have to like characters, as long as they’re interesting. Hell, they don’t have to be interesting so long as interesting things happen to them.

I can only speak for myself, but if I can’t find a connection to the human-ness (for lack of a better word), I’m not engaged and I don’t want to go on any kind of fictional journey with them. And yes, anti-heroes tread a thin line with me. Conflicted types such as Dexter or Thomas Covenant are about as far as I can go.

But I’m not saying my preferences are universal, and indeed they are likely shaped by the the unsympathetic and unlikable types of people I deal with professionally (“reality” TV holds little appeal to me for the same reasons). The way I see it, I simply value my time and have learned not to piss it away reading unsatifying things.

I find that if I can’t find a character interesting I don’t care about them. I don’t have to “like” them but something in the character has to compel you to want to find out more. An example of this would be Glotka in the The First Law Trilogy. The guy is not a nice guy, but the way the character is written makes you want to know more about him. Abercrombie does a real good job in the trilogy making characters good/bad qualities speak for themselves.