What Makes a Book Memorable?

I read almost every night before going to sleep. Some books I put down and don’t think about again until twenty-three hours later. Others have characters so bland, I have to relearn their names every evening.

Once in a great while, a book will stay with me between bedtime reading sessions. The characters walk beside me while I go about my routine, like friends I’ve recently visited. (If I were a New York City literary agent, this would be where I’d mention missing my subway stop.)

so many books so little time

It’s the memorable books that make my annual holiday book lists, because they take me out of my own world and into their own—not just while I’m actively engaged with their pages, but while I’m walking or driving or doing the dishes. These books whisper in my ear, making me feel like I’ve stayed away too long—and then allow me to pick up again right where I left off. Unlike the 24 hour news cycle, or anything else on a screen, their pages will be the same no matter how long I stay away. I read mostly fiction, but well-written non-fiction can cling too.

The best books are also the hardest to parse. The writing slips by unnoticed, a self-driving vehicle that propels the story to its next destination. Occasionally I will pause to appreciate a particularly lovely sentence, but mostly my eyes rush forward to find out what happens next. (If it’s a truly memorable book I’ll start over again from the beginning right away, to study how the author achieved that perfect level of detail and tone, all in the right order.)

It’s much easier to spot what keeps books from being memorable. If I’m editing as I read, the self-driving car needs re-programming. Recently I read a book that started off really well and was almost as good in the last quarter. In between was a muddle of distracting background information (in one jaw-dropping instance, the same description appeared word for word on two separate pages). I know that already! I silently shouted at the page, frustrated with how much better (and shorter) the 400-page book could’ve been. Maybe that middle third was edited on a Friday or Monday?

I made it to the end, and I’m glad I did. Despite its heavy-handedness, it still checked off several items on my list of what makes a book memorable:

  1. Characters feel real—though they don’t have to be people I would hang out with in real life.
  2. Setting details include just enough so I can “see” where I am, it but not so much it bogs down the story.
  3. There has to be a question. Or even better, several questions. And they have to be answered, but not too predictably or too fast.
  4. Like setting, formatting should not distract. I shouldn’t be thinking about why a designer chose a particular font or added spaces between paragraphs instead of indenting the first line.

Got something to add to this list, or a book you couldn’t put down? Please share in the comments below. Meanwhile, I’m off to the bookstore, in search of my next memorable read.

2017 Holiday Book List

Holiday Book List 2016

Holiday Book List 2015

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