Not long ago, I discovered GoodReads, a terrific website devoted to book lovers, where members can discover, recommend and keep track of their books. This website is a happy discovery because a recent move to a smaller home has relegated all of my beloved books to storage for the foreseeable future. And besides, as a rabid Kindle enthusiast, I rarely purchase physical books anymore. GoodReads gives me a way to see all of my books in one place, their covers lined up neatly down the page. I love that! Whenever I get a spare moment, I engross myself in the process of stocking my digital book shelves. I actually get a little thrill out of growing my own personal library. Although I've really just started filling my virtual shelves, the process of searching for books and, more interestingly, rating books I've read has me thinking: Why do certain books leave a lasting impression on me and others, while I may enjoy them in the moment, just don't stay with me?
Over the course of my forty-odd years, I have read hundreds of books. I love reading. And here's something that struck me as weird at first: I can't recall ever reading a "bad" book—presumably because I stopped reading the genuinely terrible ones and promptly forgot them. Without exception, all of the books in my digital bookshelf were ones I eagerly devoured. But a lot of them, while I distinctly remember liking them, left me with almost no reliable specifics years later. Sometimes I remember almost nothing about the characters and have only the vaguest recollection of the world. Does this mean that the dimly remembered stories on my bookshelf aren't 'good reads'? After thinking about it a bit, I don't think so. They were certainly memorable enough that I can recall reading them. I remember their titles. I remember liking them. I recognize their covers. But in some cases the stories are completely lost to me.
And that set me to wondering... What makes a book truly memorable?
Some of the stories that have stayed with me seem to be the ones that introduced me to a genre. The Dead Zone (Stephen King), Songs of Earth and Power (Greg Bear), The Deed of Paksenarrion (Elizabeth Moon) and Guilty Pleasures (Laurell K. Hamilton) are all novels that thrilled me because they were so new. You know how you can remember exactly where you were when something big happened? That's sort of how it feels for these stories. Not only can I remember the books themselves; plot, characters, the locations and rafts of little details, but I also remember exactly where and when I started reading each of them.
Others have stuck with me because they tugged strongly on my emotions. The Five People You Meet in Heaven (Mitch Albom) brought me to tears as I learned the true meaning of the main character's life. The adversities faced by the characters in The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett) had me angrily stomping my feet on more than one occasion. The story was that upsetting for me. (It also sports what may be the best opening line I've ever read: "The small boys came early to the hanging.") Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels made me laugh out loud, mostly because I can totally see myself making the same clueless choices with, I'm sure, equally disastrous results.
I also tend to remember stories that spin a familiar plot in a clever way or offer an unexpected perspective, sometimes both! Wicked (Gregory Maguire) was one of those books that made me say, none too greenly, "Now, why didn't I think of that!" Although the story parallels the tale of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum), Maguire's inversion of Baum's story utterly captivated me. Nor will On A Pale Horse (Piers Anthony) fade from memory any time soon. I read his first book in the Incarnations of Immortality series over ten years ago, but the notion that Death is a job, one that can only be filled by killing the previous occupant, led into such an engaging romp that I ended up reading all the other books in the series back to back.
Some stories seem to live on the power of a single character. Dracula (Bram Stoker), Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë), the stories of Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), The Hobbit (J. R. R. Tolkien) all fall into that category for me. I may lose some of the details, but the protagonists will be with me forever.
I've just read and thoroughly enjoyed The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows) and The Mystery of Grace (Charles de Lint). I wonder if, ten years from now, I'll be able to recall their stories with more than just a little detail. I hope so, because it really was a pleasure reading both of them. But I guess if they do slip away from me, I can always go back and read them again!
So, what do you think? What makes a book both good AND memorable? What books do you still remember clearly, even though you may have read them years ago? And finally, do you still give books you clearly-remember-enjoying-but-can't-recall-the-exact-story a 'liked it' or better rating on GoodReads? How come... or why not? I'd love to hear your thoughts!