At the Public Library Association meeting, concluded last week in Philadelphia, Nancy Pearl was doing what she does best—talking about great books and how to connect them with readers. On that score, and based on one of her talks at PLA (and at a recent TED talk) we asked Nancy to share her ideas about putting books and readers together.
I believe reading is about experiencing joy, and that we learn something about ourselves, and the world, with every book we read, whether a romance, biography, mass-market thriller, or a literary novel. My life has been dedicated to helping myself and others find the next good book to read. But just what is a “good book”? My definition of a good book is simple: a good book is one that I enjoy, just as a good book for you is one that you enjoy. We may agree, or we may not, on what’s a good book; readers differ all the time on the quality of a book. When it comes to reading, the only opinion that should matter is our own.
I think that many of us spend too much time and emotional energy trying to keep up with the reading Joneses—reviewers, friends, teachers. The hardest part of helping readers find their next good book is that we tend to think about books in a way that’s not particularly useful to the process.
The Rule of Four
We often start by matching the book a reader has just read with other books on the same general topic or in the same genre. But when we link books by what they’re about—primarily, the plot details—I think we misunderstand what really goes on in our reading lives. When we want a book exactly like the one we just finished reading, what we really want is to recreate that pleasurable experience—the headlong rush to the last page, the falling into a character’s life, the deeper understanding we’ve gotten of a place or a time, or the feeling of reading words that are put together in a way that causes us to look at the world differently. We need to start thinking about what it is about a book that draws us in, rather than what the book is about.
It seems to me that all works of fiction and narrative nonfiction are broadly made up of four experiential elements: story, character, setting, and language. I call these “doorways,” because when we open a book, read the first few pages, and choose to go on, we enter the world of that book. And I’ve come to believe we can help readers better choose their next book by looking at the proportion of these four elements.
A book with story as its biggest doorway is one that readers describe as a page-turner, a book that they can’t put down because they desperately want to discover what happens next.
A book with character as its biggest doorway is a book in which readers feel so connected with the characters that when the book is over they feel they’ve lost someone dear to them.
Readers of novels in which setting is most prominent say things like “I felt like I was there,” or, as one man told me, “When I finished Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, I immediately made plans to go to New Mexico—I had to see for myself where it took place.”
A book in which language is the major doorway leads readers to utter sentences like “I read more slowly because I wanted to savor the language” or “I’m not even sure what the book is about, but I loved the way the author wrote.”
My dream is to attach to every entry in a library or bookstore’s online catalogue a pie chart indicating the biggest “doorways” of every work of fiction or narrative nonfiction, an immediate visual representation of the book’s major elements. In order to help you find your next good book, the trick is to find a pie chart that closely matches a book you loved.
And why stop at the catalogue? Wouldn’t it be great to have a Web site or an app devoted to the four doorways? For example, if you like character-driven titles, such as Stewart O’Nan’s Emily Alone, you could pull up a visual representation of books with “character” as the major doorway, with some perhaps having story as the second biggest doorway, some setting, some language.
My hope, of course, is that these charts might help readers more easily find better choices for their next good read. The charts, for example, could help clarify why fans of Daniel Silva, Dan Brown, or Tom Clancy may not enjoy the novels of John le Carré—because even though all these authors write novels of international intrigue, Silva, Brown, and Clancy all have large story doorways, while le Carré’s biggest doorways are character and language.
A chart would reflect why someone who loves the page-turning novels of Kristin Hannah would likely find Anne Tyler’s character-driven novels slow or tedious. Think about these two popular novels based on the tragedy at Columbine High School: Jodi Picoult’s 19 Minutes and Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. They are very different books—one of them is story-driven, breathless, action-oriented, while the other is leisurely, written from the point of view of the mother of a teenage boy. Which one do you choose?
Could this pie-charting of books be done? I think so—especially in this age of social media, where readers, upon finishing a book, could create their own pie charts with an app or on a Web site that could collect and display the data. My own experience has shown that while we may differ somewhat on the actual percentages—you may think that Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is 70% language, 15% character, 10% setting, and 5% story, while I may think it’s 60% language, 20% setting, 10% character and 10% story—we both are likely to recognize that language is, by far, the biggest doorway and that readers who love language-driven novels will be drawn to García Márquez more than readers who like story-driven works.
Blurring the Lines
At first glance, some may say a book cannot be represented in a pie chart. But I think it’s important to recognize that Melvil Dewey’s decimal system was not written in stone. Dewey did not bring his classification plan down from the mountain. There have always been different ideas about how to classify books. In fact, one of those came centuries before Dewey, from Francis Bacon, who divided the world of books into only three categories: History, Imagination, and Philosophy. Why shouldn’t libraries try something new to help connect readers with books they enjoy?
The pie chart way of thinking refuses to rank books in terms of an extrinsic metric that ranges from “classics” to “trash.” Underpinning the pie chart is my theory that a good book is simply a book one has enjoyed. You can certainly tell me that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is a classic and everyone should read it. But what difference does that make to me if I don’t enjoy the book? Looking at fiction and narrative nonfiction through pie charts, on the other hand, also allows us to blur artificial distinctions between genres, even between fiction and nonfiction, and to focus on the wider pursuit: finding that next good book to read.
People you ought to meet—memoirs
Instead of a Letter by Diana Athill
By the Iowa Sea by Joe Blair
One More Theory About Happiness by Paul Guest
A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel
The Perfect Stranger by P.J. Kavanagh A Hole in the Sky by William Kittredge
House of Prayer No. 2 by Mark Richard Burning the Days by James Salter
When Wanderers Cease to Roam: A Traveler’s Journal of Staying Put by Vivian Swift
Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family by Patricia Volk
Nancy Pearl, a veteran Seattle librarian, is a regular commentator about books on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.