What Good Books have in Common
Posted February 2016
All my favorite books all have a few things in common, they make me think, they make me care, and they allow me to lose myself in the story. It can be any genre, and it can be a new story or an old one. Great storytelling is great storytelling and it transcends time and topic.
I read Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea for the first time perhaps five years ago, and I still think about it. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged changed my perspective on life, so much so that I considered naming my daughter Dagny (she is very thankful that my husband vetoed it). The first time I read Charlotte's Web, I dreamt about it for weeks. Same with The Outsiders and The Power of One. Recent marvels have been Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Me Before You by JoJo Moyes, A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, and The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah.
So how do these authors do it? To answer that question I went back to my favorite childhood story, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. The book was written in 1964, two years before I was born. I grew up with it; my children grew up with it; my grandchildren will grow up with it. It is brilliant in its simplicity and beautiful in its timeless message.
“Once there was a tree…”
That is how it begins.
612 words later it ends with, “And the tree was happy.”
I don’t even need to explain what goes on between the first page and the last. With only those two lines you know it is a good story, the question of what made the tree happy begging to be answered. That is great storytelling.
Aesop understood that as well. The author of the greatest collection of fables every written, his most famous tale, The Tortoise and the Hare, is a mere 153 words long, not even half as long as this essay. It was written somewhere between 620BC and 524 BC, and its moral, “slow and steady wins the race,” is still quoted today and most people know the story it came from. Now that is storytelling!
Make me think. Make me care. Let me get lost in the story. It sounds so simple. It’s what I look for when I read, and it is what I aspire to when I write.