19 June 2015

Fifty Books in Five Months: On Taste

In reading fifty books over five months, I was able to quantify a lot of things that I love to see in books, and things that leave me feeling unfulfilled.

The thing that struck me most, in looking back on the books I loved so much I had to buy them, was not just that the book had to have irresistible voice—there were plenty of books that had that, plenty that I finished in only a day—but the books had to make me feel things.

I'm not the easiest person to move. I don't think I keep a lot of things bottled up, but I do think I'm the kind of person that is slow to warm up to things, including giving in to emotions. I guess some of that comes from my history with depression, and the desire to keep myself on an even keel.

Regardless, when I read, I want to feel things. I want to be moved. I want catharsis.

And for me, at least, I want that catharsis encapsulated in a moment. That moment when something unknown becomes known, that moment when something left unsaid is finally spoken aloud. The moment when two lovers touch for the first time, when a parent hugs their child and tells them everything will be all right, when a friend has to say goodbye forever.

There is power in naming a thing. Ursula K. LeGuin knew that when she made her magic system for Earthsea. When you name something, you have power over it.

Moments are like that, too. When the subtext becomes the text—that is the moment that touches me. Even if it happens on the last page of a book, I need that to be fulfilled.


One of my favorite books so far this year was ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES, despite—or maybe because of—how shattering it was. Violet dealt with Finch's suicide head-on. I felt every bit of pain she felt. I felt the anger. I felt the hopelessness. And I felt her resolve to keep on going. I felt her decide to move on.

PLAYLIST FOR THE DEAD also dealt with the aftermath of a suicide, though it took place before the start of the story. And yet it never reached the heights of emotional honesty that ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES did. Sam was crippled by guilt about Hayden, full of anger for those who tormented him, yet at every turn, it felt like the confrontations that Sam needed—that I needed—were cut short, or just didn't happen. Even at the very end, when Sam finally talked to Hayden's brother, it felt like nothing was resolved. I can deal with things not being resolved—maybe suicide is never really resolved—but I couldn't accept the lack of release. The feelings that had built up during the novel needed released, and they weren't.

Violet and Finch's story is still with me now, months after reading it. I'll hear a song and think about it. But I forgot Sam's story enough that I had to look up his name.

This is what I want and need from my stories. And I think this is what I want to put into my stories as well.

It's good to know.