As we lift the cover of our ideal book, what is the sort of story which meets our eyes? Perhaps the most comprehensive answer is, “A delightful one.”
But what constitutes a delightful book? In the first place, our ideal story must be for the whole family. Maxwell Perkins once wrote that, “Most of the best books in the world are read by both children and adults. This is a characteristic of a great book, that it is both juvenile and adult.” The ideal book draws our whole family together around it. Yes, it can be appreciated at different levels by different ages, but a book that is a classic cannot really be put into a single age group. It is a book which is loved by both young and old—a book to be returned to again and again throughout one’s life.
I quite recognise the difficulties which this ideal book will need to face in pleasing so wide an audience at once. And for this reason our ideal story must be an engaging one. We want to go away from a chapter wondering what will happen in the next one. We want to be carried along from the first page to the last, in an easy, natural sequence, which does not let the story drag or halt, but flows along, making us more interested with each passage we read. Its pages may be divided into chapters—we may go away, perhaps for twenty-four or forty-eight hours at a time—but we are never allowed to forget about our characters, or the plot in which they move.
By this I do not necessarily mean that the ideal novel is an out-and-out adventure. I have read a great many adventure novels, and I am willing to admit that on the whole this genre has a far higher percentage of engaging books than most others. But a novel that is purely adventure has a tendency to verge into sensationalism. Instead of reading for what the book is itself, we are reading for the thrill of suspense. This style may be harmless in small doses, but I do not think it is the ideal of writing.
The ideal novel is a wholesome one—and it is a realistic one. I was skimming a story in an old magazine recently, and I happened to come in for the denouement of a serial piece, in which the plot appeared to be the trouble which the heroine caused herself by imagining that all the events out of contemporary sensation novels were going to happen in real life. An interesting remark which the author made was that it is a mistake to put excessively improbable incidents into books set in modern times. They suggested that there have been times in the past when such adventures were realistic. The story of the Apostle Paul comes to my mind. Paul escaped out of Damascus by being let down over the wall in a basket, he was nearly killed by the Jews in the temple and rescued by Roman soldiers, and then sent off by night so as to avoid a plot against his life. These things really happened, and it is not unreasonable for us to suppose that in writing fiction set in the last years of the Roman empire, our ideal book might easily make use of similar events. But they would not be fitting in the western world in the twenty-first century.
This gives, of course, a more limited repertoire to the author who selects a peaceful time and place for the backdrop of his book, but then that is the reason that I admire so much the author who can make an engaging plot out of the events of common life. By this I do not mean that my ideal book is a hum-drum one. I have read books which contain precisely the same feeling of heroic, life-and-death importance as the most epic adventure, without employing a single event which might not have happened to any of us.
And how do these authors accomplish this seeming impossibility? By making their drama lie not in the outside world, but within the characters themselves.
Next week, we’ll take a look at just what sort of characters can make an epic tale out of commonplace events. For now, I would love to hear what titles you love for their engaging style and their ability to delight the whole family.
- Good Books at the Library
- Good Books From Christian Publishers