What is the purpose of a good book? Is it solely to provide entertainment, or to entertain with a deeper purpose?
Can a book that doesn’t include any obvious messages or themes still be a good story? Does it have value, or is its value based on what truths it displays?
When it comes to reading books, everything is subjective. It’s not like plumbing, where there’s a clear right and wrong way to hook up the pipes. The value people assign to books is based on their personal preferences, not on a single guiding principle about what makes a book good or bad. (Foregoing a complicated discussion about the ins and outs of writing rules and story structure. I’m talking about different types of stories.)
Some readers love a historical romance.
Others prefer a swashbuckling adventure or a stimulating science fiction tale.
Some want a story that weaves meaningful themes into the narrative, while others only care about the thrill of the story itself.
Does that make one inherently better than another?
Of course not.
Some books are nothing more than fun, adventurous stories without any apparent themes or messages hidden in the story.
That’s fine. Not every book needs to say something profound about life or offer a look at a challenging issue.
Some people might think these books lack value because they’re shallow or they don’t deal with important issues.
Not true. That’s like saying a tootsie roll isn’t food. It is, but we give it a different value than, say, a mouth-watering plate of turkey and mashed “po-tay-toes.”
We don’t expect candy to have the same benefits as a healthy meal, but that doesn’t discount your tootsie rolls. (There’s always a place for chocolate, right?)
Same with books.
If you dig deep enough, I think most books fall into this category. Even if it’s not obvious on the surface, they strive to reveal some deeper truth or tackle a specific topic.
Returning to the candy and food analogy, books that merely entertain us are like tootsie rolls—enjoyable while they last, but fleeting and lacking any long-term benefit.
Books that weave a compelling theme into an exciting story are like a slice of filet mignon—delicious and nourishing at the same time. Those are the books we enjoy in the moment but that stay with us long after we’ve read the last page.
I’m not discounting the “candy” books. They have their place. But the “steak” books are the ones truly worth reading.
Sometimes, people think that when a book deals with a specific topic in a pointed way, it becomes preachy. Nay-nay, I say. Consider a couple examples.
THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE
On the surface, this is a fun children’s fantasy story. Talking animals, a world found inside a wardrobe, a quest to save the enchanted world from the evil witch.
That’s all great, but the story doesn’t stop there. It goes much deeper, dealing with themes of love, redemption, and sacrifice.
THE HUNGER GAMES
This wildly popular series is one of the best examples of combining a gripping story with profound themes. The stories revolve around the Games, the rebellion of the districts, and the love triangle among Katniss, Peeta, and Gale.
But beneath the action, the themes flow like a strong undercurrent, refusing to be ignored:
Would you call those books preachy? I don’t think so. If a book stresses a key theme in an overbearing way, instead of in a way that naturally flows from the story, that’s preaching—and a recipe for irritated readers.
But a strong message doesn’t make a book preachy by default.
In this case, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Everyone has different tastes, and that’s fine. Personally, I think all books have value to some extent, but the ones that probe the deep questions have more meat on the bone, so to speak.
What do you think gives a book value? Which type of book do you prefer to read?
*This post appeared in original form on zacharytotah.com, March 25, 2015.*