March 6, 2013 by Julia
You know that moment when you’re reading a book, and you realize that you’ve crossed over from enjoying it to loving it? Sometimes it’s a private love – you just want to curl up in a corner somewhere and have the rest of the book all to yourself; you’re not even sure if anyone else would get it the way you do – literary taste is highly subjective, after all. But if it’s a crowd pleaser, a page-turner, satisfying and surprising, you instantly begin compiling a list of all the people you want to recommend it to.
I began to love Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth Bennett first visits Darcy’s estate – whom she has already rebuffed for his superior attitude – and realizes almost against her own will that he has the loveliest home and grounds, and may not be such a bad man after all. She was so certain of herself up until that point, so full of integrity, that it pains her to be affected by the beauty around her, but realizes that it reflects on Darcy himself, and she may have misjudged him. His warmth and generosity of spirit upon their unexpected meeting move her to question her previous feelings toward him. That shifting, that moment of vulnerability on Elizabeth’s part, the feeling, is what made me start to love Pride and Prejudice. I realize that the same kinds of events happen in trashy romance novels all the time, but in Jane Austen’s hands it felt authentic, perfectly observed. Up until that moment, I’d recognized that she was a brilliant writer – it was pretty amazing that 183 years after its publication, the social interactions and insight into character still translated so well to me as a teenager. But it was the emotion of those moments, the transcendence of the words themselves to a place of flushed cheeks and questioning and flustered love, that turned this novel into one of my all-time favorites.
So what else makes me love a book (as opposed to just admire it, or just enjoy it)?
I love it when the writing hits the sweet spot between poetry and insight, like Shakespeare’s best lines. (“Who could refrain, that had a heart to love, and in that heart courage to make love known?”) There are beautiful ways to describe all the aspects of human nature – and when that truth is hit directly on the head with a bit of lyricism, it’s like we’ve never seen it before. That kind of writing gives us the world anew.
I love it when a book rips my heart to pieces. I realized this at eight years old when I first read Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, about a boy and his two hound dogs, and the end devastated me. (I won’t spoil it.) I went outside and rode my bike in circles on our backyard basketball court, sobbing. My mom remembers watching me through the kitchen window. And yet, I declared it my favorite book for years on end. If something can affect you that much, it must be good.
I love it when things get a little dark and twisty. I like to be shocked by a sudden explosion of violence, or to feel the heat of illicit sexual tension, or wonder if the protagonist actually has a grip on reality. When things get visceral like that, it snaps everything into focus. Things start popping off the page. In book club this week we were discussing a scene near the end of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (I won’t give anything away, because if you haven’t already read it, you should). I told everyone I was so tense during the scene that I actually had to cover the upcoming paragraphs with my hand so my eyes wouldn’t cheat by jumping forward to see what happened next. Apparently two others in our club had done the exact same thing. When you can’t even trust your own eyes to obey the rules of reading, you know you’re fully invested.
Perfectly matched opponents engaged in a battle of the wills, or wits, or skills, or whatever, are also entertaining. Bonus points for good vs. bad, and I prefer my main character to be on the good side (unless we’re talking about a TV show antihero, which I think for some reason works better than in literature – maybe because we don’t have to actually get inside their head like we would in a book.) Wanting the protagonist to fight, fight, fight and win, dammit! against someone who is just so manipulative, so despicable, so clever, so cruel, is one of my favorite sensations while reading. As much I enjoy moral ambiguity at times, the satisfaction of watching a flawed but mostly good character rise up against all odds and beat back evil still gets me every time. (As long as it’s well-written; but that goes without saying.)
Probably the most important thing, when it comes to making me love a book, is character and place. The world of the Narnia books still appeals me on a deep level. It’s something about the juxtaposition of the boxed-in lives of English schoolchildren with this fantastical place…which could be reached through wardrobes, or attics where crazy uncles hung out, or paintings of the sea. The image of the lamppost in the middle of a snowy forest is so simple and beautiful. The quiet whimsy of it kills me. That turning of the furs of the wardrobe into evergreen trees, the chill of the snow. Small magic, the way I like it. Much better to me than epic fantasies. And if a character is so lovable that I’m going to miss them when I finish the book, I’m probably going to count that as one of my favorite books. Owen Meany (in A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving) was eccentric and full of conviction and EVERYTHING HE SAID WAS IN CAPS, which was endearing and hilarious to me…I was genuinely sad to leave him. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery gives a great example of a lovable character so closely tied into a lovable place that you just want to somehow transport yourself to Prince Edward’s Island and hang out with Anne and her bosom friend Diana (if you’re a twelve-year-old bookish girl, anyway).
Also, I love love. It’s hard to trump a good love story, whether it ends happily ever after, or does that ripping my heart out thing I mentioned before.
Oh, books! Hugs to you.