Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Sunday Salon -- The Value of a Book


I am currently reading Ted Dekker's latest book which was co-written with Erin Healy, Kiss. For those of you unfamiliar with Ted Dekker, he is one of Christian fictions best-selling authors, well known for writing page turners usually with a hint of the supernatural. I usually enjoy Dekker's books. The Circle Trilogy books are probably my favorite, but I have enjoyed all that I've read. I am really liking this one as well, and true to form, I find myself trying to sneak in a few pages here and there. Critics may say what they want, but Dekker is a master when it comes to pacing. Soon, he will be releasing a novel for the general market. If you have an aversion to Christian fiction, I recommend checking that book out. If you only read Christian fiction, I still think you should check it out. :)

One thing that is cool about Dekker is that he has a huge fan base and has worked to connect with his fans online. In fact, there is even going to be a convention of his fans, called The Gathering, and those who attend will get the chance to meet him and get a free book I think. It always warms my heart to know that authors can have that kind of fanbase.

Last week's Sunday Salon post was very interesting and I really enjoyed all of the discussion. As an offshoot, I have three very special guest bloggers this week who will each discuss their passion for how they get their books. They are all better writers than me, and wonderful people and bloggers and I hope that their posts will help to generate more discussion and provide more food for thought.

You may have noticed that I like to use the Sunday Salon as a place to discuss whatever is on my mind in the book blogging world or the literary world in general. And this week is no exception.

Two different blog posts raised this question in my mind....how do you decide the value of a book?*

Certainly there are critics that tell us what a book is worth in terms of literary merit. And then there are reviewers that tell us what a book is worth in terms of entertainment value. And then there are friends and family members that will tell us what a book is worth in terms of how it changed their life.

Usually the books the critics like are said to have enduring value. They get added to reading lists and kept in print and passed down through generations. Are they more valuable?

The first post that made me think about this was a comment on a blog post where the blogger freely admitted to judging people's literary taste, likening it to poor fashion taste. I have to admit that the part about judging literary taste turned me off. Don't get me wrong. I judge literary taste as well. For example, if you review nothing but paranormal romances on your blog, I am going to judge that you really like paranormal romances. :) But I will not judge you based on that. Nor will I even say my taste is better....just that we have different taste.

The thing about books...well they are stories. And while there are indeed standards of the craft that can be measured, there is no way to measure the unique chemistry that exists between the life of a reader coming into contact with a story. A book that has the right combination of words and story devices, shared experiences, and unique perspectives can slip underneath the defenses of a reader and give them what we long for most when we read...connection. Yet the next person to read it may find it utterly meaningless. This point was really driven home when I read a review of a book I loved from last year, and the reviewer wrote that there was nothing deep about the book. Yet that same book offered me one of the most profound insights I had through the year. So either that means I'm shallow (which I guess I could be. ;) Or that the timing of the book was right for me...it met me where I was in my life, while this other reviewer had no need of it.

Taking this all just a little bit further, I think books can offer more than what they give an individual. They can offer community. I like to say books are conversations. We read and then we discuss. We let what we read become part of us. So for those who would like to bash Harry Potter and Twilight, let me say this. Harry Potter was extraordinarily valuable in a way that can't be measured by critics. We live in a world where there are SO MANY choices for entertainment. There are 300+ television channels, millions of blogs, several different game consoles, hundreds of movies a year, and several genres just within reading itself! While this is wonderful in some ways, it has isolated us in others. It is rare to be able to share the same entertainment choices with friends, neighbors, and coworkers. So what was so fantastic about Harry Potter was the way it united us...a whole world, really, reading these wonderful heartfelt books where good battled evil and won, but not without casualty. Was the writing the best? Maybe not. But how exciting to have both reluctant reading children and adults excited about the next Harry Potter. It's something I miss now that the books are at their conclusion..we who love books got to see books unite us for a time. We joined to together in anticipation, theorizing, and discussion. Books like Harry Potter create community around themselves and transform the typically solitary activity of reading into a shared experience. And that is valuable.

So..are there standards of the craft that can be measured? Yes. Do they determine a book's universal value? I think no. A book's value is determined by the one reading it.

*by book here, I mean novel. This is about fiction. Non-fiction is a whole different matter.



Amy

17 comments:

QM said...

Hey(;

yeah! I totally agree with you. I love books a hell lot. If my mum took my handphone away, it didn't affect me at all. But when she took my books away & ban me from entering bookstores, I was crying. LOL

Book are the greatest gifts that anyone could have. Nice blog(;

Cheers!

Kay said...

Amy, you are very insightful. I appreciate your taking time to write this very thought provoking essay. I agree with you completely.

I have not read Ted Dekker yet, although I have read many inspirational books. Do you have a suggestion on what I should start with?

And....I miss having another Harry Potter too! It was a very fun few years and a great experience.

Lenore said...

When I think about a book's value to me, as in, do I want to keep it on my shelf or pass it on, a couple of things come into play. First, I will keep it if it's signed by the author - that certainly adds to the value. Then I think about the time I spent with the book - is it a friend that I can't bear to part with? Can I see myself reading it whole (or in part) again? It is a book I want to loan out to friends because I want them to feel the same way about it I did?

Court said...

In regards to something you brought up (Or that the timing of the book was right for me...it met me where I was in my life, while this other reviewer had no need of it.)....

Have you read Shannon Hale's blog posts about how to be a reader? She touches on this subject a few times - specifically her post on reader responsibility. There she talks about how every persons experiences, beliefs, etc. have an impact on the enjoyment (or not-so-enjoyment) of the books they read.

Megan said...

What an excellent post! I definitely have to agree with you that the value of a novel, for me, doesn't always have so much to do with the genre or its "literary merit" as related to others in its "class" or even with the "quality" of the writing. The value, I've found, is definitely in the connection I feel to it. I've found that a book can have more or less value to me depending on when I read it just because I'm walking through something different that might make me more open to what it's saying. I'm not saying that you couldn't say that, in technical terms, some books are better than others, but even that is very subjective. When it comes to the average everyday reader, though, I do believe it's much more about connection than anything else.

bermudaonion said...

You are so right, Amy. I would never judge someone based on the type of books they like. There are tons of choices out there because we all have such different tastes and life experiences.

Rebecca @ The Book Lady's Blog said...

Great discussion! I always look for complex characters and a well-crafted, compelling story, but everything else depends on what I want to get out of the book. Sometimes I want relatively mindless entertainment. Other times, I want something that will make me think, that will stretch my understanding of something or make me ask difficult questions. Sometimes I want a story familiar to my own life, and other times I want to read about characters whose experiences are totally foreign. The value of a book is different for every person, and I determine it based on how well it did what I wanted or expected it to do.

Robin of My Two Blessings said...

Great Post, Amy. That is the thing I liked about the Harry Potter books and Twilight is that it got people reading. They got kids excited about books and got them into the bookstores.

I've never judged a person by the books they read. Everyone has different tastes. If we all had the same taste, life would be boring. I think that is what makes the book blog world so popular. At least for me, your blog and numerous others expose me to books I wouldn't otherwise consider.

Doesn't it all come down to perception - how we perceive the world. Two people can have the exact same experience and you get two different explanations of what happened. Look at the book "Wicked." Folks either loved it or hated it. The same goes for Harry Potter and Twilight. Some just didn't see the intrinsic value of the books.

I totally agree with you that the value of book is determined by the individual reader. And I'm starting to ramble and repeat myself so will stop there.

Looking forward to hearing what you have to say about "Kiss". Ted Dekker is one of my favorite authors and the book is on my wishlist waiting for my TBR pile to shrink a bit.

Robin

Elizabeth said...

I read for entertainment. For a book to have "value" to me, it means I want to pass it on to people I know, or keep in my own small library. Most books I get from the library, and I like to be able to recommend the ones I like to friends. I also swap paperbacks, almost all of which go to charity or a local swap store.

Art said...

Thanks for the ideas, Ted Dekkers books sound really good. I've read only one of them, so I might try a few more.

I've also written my first "Sunday Salon" entry! I'm looking forward to reading more of yours.

Travis Prinzi said...

I'd like to suggest, as long as Harry Potter was brought up, that those books in particular, even after we've stopped joining together to guess what's going to happen next, will have a lasting value for a long time, precisely because so many people joined together in that discussion. They've become the first "shared text" that we've seen in a long, long time - something that is part of a common heritage.

And the fascinating thing about Harry Potter (as opposed to something like Da Vinci Code or Twilight) is that they're actually good enough to merit the attention of bona fide literary scholars who think the series constitutes something that should be included in the Great Books canon.

I think I'd want to push the conversation in this direction: A book's value is determined by the experience of the personal reader; but value for what?

Entertainment value? Lots of poorly written books have entertainment value. No harm in that whatsoever, but also no lasting cultural value beyond the "15 minutes" of their popularity. One might even encounter a deep, profound moment or two in them that says just the right thing at just the right time, like you were saying, Amy.

Value to intelligently reflect and critique a culture? You need good art for that, because one has to encounter beautiful artistry, and be inwardly transformed in the process. The books that do that for many people and having a lasting impact on people and culture - those books have far more value than the momentary, quasi-profound, entertainment-value books.

So yes, there can be momentary, personal value in any book, poorly written or not. But great artistry and the searching out of the themes of the Great Books, and, as Tolkien said, "the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires" - these things go far beyond momentary value and add a lasting value to certain books.

Which is why there are old books we still read, and ones that we've never even heard of.

Travis Prinzi said...

A clarifying comment (I'm going to need to make a lot of those in all the writing and commenting I do today; I was up with my sick daughter through half of the night last night):

Obviously, Amy, you did touch on entertainment value, personal value, and cultural value. I think I just wanted to add some extra notes on why the cultural value is important.

You're absolutely right that there's no straight, objective way to evaluate a book's effectiveness or profundity - as though there were some artistic checklist, and if you meet each point, you've made good art. There are, of course, things that make bad art, like lack of creativity, lack of variety of expression, poor characterization, unbelievable plotline, etc. Stuff that distracts from your experience of the story and the "willing suspension of disbelief."

Still - and especially as Christians made in God's image - beauty is something that reflects the beauty of God's creation. It has its antecedent in more than just the human experience; it comes from God himself, and the working out of our own creativity is part of the image of God in us. We "sub-create, as Tolkien said, because He created. This is why I do think it's fair to say that it's possible to judge one piece of art better than another, depending on how it works in culture to satisfy "ancient desires."

And even then, there will always be room for disagreement. I'm no fan of Twilight, as you know, but my good friend and colleague, John Granger, finds some value in the books. We disagree, and those disagreements are good to have in a gracious manner. We can discuss and disagree about the merits of books without judging each other (i.e., you must be dumb if you like such-and-such).

Despite, as I said, not being a Twilight fan and thinking it fails artistically at least on a few levels, I know many people are finding a personal connection with that series, and there are certainly a few "Great Books" elements in there. I've also freely admitted in many conversations about the stories that I could be wrong, that I want to have the conversation, and I've been asking lots of questions about why, in particular, people are fans of the stories.

In other words, let the conversations about whether or not a book is good happen, not relegating it only to "personal taste," but do so kindly and with humility. That seems like a better way to go.

Amy said...

QM--thanks for stopping by and I'm glad you love books!

Kay--Three is his best known thriller, but I also really enjoyed Obsessed and The Circle Trilogy is probably my favorite. But Three might be a good place to start. :)

Lenore--I can get behind that, though I've even passed on signed books. I just don't have the storage.

Court--I haven't read those, but I will definitely seek them out, thanks!

Megan--yeah exactly. :)

Kathy--isn't it true? And what capture our imaginations can be so different.

Robin--I'm so glad to hear you like Ted Dekker! I can always count on enjoying his books. I haven't read Wicked, but that sounds like a good example.

Elizabeth--I read for entertainment too. I read for many many many different reasons.

Art--I hope you do check out Ted Dekker and welcome to the Sunday Salon!

Travis--the original post that inspired this post was a blogger bashing Harry Potter as nothing more than escapism and drivel. She felt that it failed to live up to common literary standards. I'm a huge Harry Potter fan and on a whim, I clicked through my reader to see the comments. That's where I read her comment about judging others. I tried to think of a way to comment and in the end, just wrote my own blog post. I do agree that there are issues of craft that can be judged and even subject matter that can be explored in its contribution to society, but opinion will differ even on the greats.

It's not that I'm saying a discussion of a book's greatness can't be discussed. I love those discussions. But even The Reader, a book I reviewed this week and found to be practically perfect was met by other readers with indifference. (And the book I mention in this post, as having given me a "profound insight" was a Publisher's Weekly book of the year and got quite a bit of high critical praise)

So yes, I agree that we should take an attitude of humility in such discussions because even though there are always books that will endure, and thank God for that, an individual determines the book's value for themselves.

Staci said...

First off, I really enjoy Dekker. I read just about anything and I don't discriminate any genre!! I just ordered one of his series for my middle school shelves. I think the boys will truly love them. Secondly, the rest of your post got me so excited about being a reader. I wholeheartedly agree with you on your thoughts of books and how HP united us as "readers." One of the best posts I've read!!

literatehousewife said...

What an interesting topic - the value of a book. I will have to give that one some thought. There are many reasons why I might value a book - the way it made me feel, the story that lingers in my subconscious, the beauty of the language, as a place marker in my life, etc... I think that it is entirely a personal thing. I will never part with my bruised and battered copies of Ulysses or Gone with the Wind, but my kids or grand kids might just pitch them in the trash. I was about to say I have no control over that, but now I'm thinking about having them buried with me...

Heather J. said...

Great post Amy - I loved your point about popular books having the ability to bring people together. Maybe I shouldn't be so "judgemental" about all the best sellers that I refuse to read ... :)

Amy said...

Staci -- I'm glad you enjoy Dekker! and thanks for your kind comments!

Jennifer -- lol about the burial part...I know what you mean...books have tremendous value in different ways. Perhaps it could be divided into absolute value and relative value. Just like money. Money has a value, but we both might value it differently.

Heather -- personally I'm fascinated by the fact that bestsellers are not necessarily what we could consider to be the best written books...why? I think it's a topic that will be endlessly fascinating to me.

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