Litmus test of time

I’ve read a lot of books. More than the average person, more than what’s deemed sane by society’s standards. Sometimes I’m proud of this achievement and flaunt my numbers. In my darker moments, my gluttonous reading habits are a cry for help and I wonder if it’s healthy to live a large portion of my life in a fantasy land. But let’s wax existential another day.

One of the perks of shifting through story after story is perspective. I’ve encountered every plot and character archetype imaginable. Unless the book is blissfully good or pukeably bad, I never feel compelled to blog about it right away. I like to sit on the story, allow it sufficient time to marinate in my head for a few days to a year. This allows me to put the plot and characters through the litmus test of time. And sadly, the conclusion I’ve drawn after two years of intensive reading is that only a few novels are memorable while the rest read like amnesia.

For instance, I read a book (title omitted) last month that I remember liking enough to recommend to my friends. I vaguely recalled that I liked the dramatic situation, the setting, but if pressed to recount a detailed description of the main characters, I can’t do it. I don’t remember a darn thing about the protagonist other than his angst and even that is recalled through a dense fog. Which brings me to this heavy thought: if you read a book and can’t remember it, did you read it at all?

While I was in the grips of this year’s blogging ennui, I started to look back all the hundred or so books I read during ’08-’09— some I enjoyed reading in the lukewarm sense, some I wish I could erase from my mind, some that struck a chord with me and changed my life for the better—and I asked myself: “What makes a book memorable?”

I assumed the Thinking Man pose, compared a sampling of my favorite books that I’ve read and re-read, and fashioned a random mini list of traits that all memorable books have in common.

  • A compelling protagonist. According to the laws of good storytelling, the protagonist must have a goal. The better the goal, the better the story. The more the protagonist wants this goal, the more invested we become in the protagonist’s fate and the more disappointed we’ll be if the protagonist fails. In short, we must want the main character to succeed almost as badly as the main character, if not more. A novel is stronger if it has a proactive protag whose desires and ambitions are driving the plot as opposed to a reluctant protag who is dragged along by the will of a stronger character.
  • It’s not enough to have a sympathetic protagonist. You need to want to BE the protagonist and in order to do that, said protag must do extraordinary, larger-than-life and sometimes crazy, but more often than not badass deeds that you wish you could do in real life but you can’t because you are just not as cool as these fictional people.  For example: Claire trying to stop a war and change the course of history in Outlander, Captain Ahab trying to kill the whale who made him a gimp, the Don taking it to the mattresses, Scarlett vowing to “never go hungry again!”

Agree? Disagree? What, in your opinion, makes for a memorable book?

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3 thoughts on “Litmus test of time

  1. To me, it has to be believable. If the characters, story line, etc., begin to feel too fake, then I have a hard time finishing the book.

    PS. I have an award for you on my blog!

  2. Well written 3 dimensional characters. Characters that have real flaws and real strengths. Believable interplay between these characters. I have to feel like I could be reading about real people, exceptional people, but real. Also, the story needs to feel like its developing as I read. Sometimes I read a story and can sense the author’s warping and forcing the story instead of letting it unfold itself. Outlander has everything you said and everything I said, best book ever.

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