The Island Books staff recently had a summer barbecue, and between flipping burgers, watching dogs play, and laughing at cute kids came the book talk. The sun was shining and to finally have some leisure time outside the store to revel in our favorite subject (reading, of course!) felt like a luxury.
This year there was some grumping about books that tell us a story without making us feel it. One of the biggest indicators of literary talent is the ability to pull genuine emotion out of a reader. That’s a harder task than one might think, especially in today’s climate of cynicism and disengagement.
There are a lot of books on happiness out there. In fact, happiness has become an actual science these days. The research is fascinating, but most of us prefer to spend time feeling happy rather than studying up on the emotion. We want more than just facts and strategies for finding happiness.
There’s an old saying for writers that it’s better to “show” rather than “tell,” and that’s important when it comes to emotionally engaging a reader. “Show us the joy,” demanded the Island Books staff, thumping the table as we ate Lori’s homemade whoopee pies. Yes we’re a persnickety group, but it’s our job to ask the books on our nightstands to make us as happy as we feel with a mouthful of chocolate.
Since happy reading was on my mind, over breakfast I asked my husband to name some books that made him feel good. He said he liked books that inspired him, like Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs and books about Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist. “I guess I’m not like most people,” he said. But I disagree. Inspiration is one of the best feelings you can take away from a book. My brother used to love adventurer Richard Halliburton’s books for just the same reason.
If presented realistically, seeing a dream come true or a character realize his or her potential at the end of a book is uplifting and rewarding. That’s probably why books like Pride and Prejudice, Water for Elephants, Dreams from My Father, and Blood, Bones, and Butter are at the top of my “close-the-book-feeling-good” list. (Yes, I varied that selection so it wasn’t all chick-lit-love-triumphs, although let’s be honest, a solid romance or strong female friendships—Cassandra King’s The Same Sweet Girls, anyone?—will forever satisfy a certain a specific genre of readers.)
I also happen to like “save-the-world-from-evil” adventures, like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Ender’s Game. Those books allow readers to feel like a hero, which is almost always a happy experience.
We often end up living vicariously through believable characters, so when a book gives us the chance to pretend we’re the kind of person we’d like to be, that’s a good thing, whether it’s a romantic object or a savior of the world.
The caveat here is that books that attempt to warm hearts and uplift spirits yet fail miserably are usually worse than reading nothing at all. That kind of reading experience reminds us that things often don’t work out and dreams rarely come true. Ugh.
In the interest of maintaining a positive tone here, I won’t make a list of books to avoid. All I want to say is: choose your reading wisely. If you find yourself fifty pages in and feeling nothing, don’t waste any more time or energy. It’s time to switch to a different book. The Help is always a happy one to pick up. I’ll always wholeheartedly recommend that one.
That’s my reading-related ramble for July. Now it’s your turn. What books make you feel good?
Miriam Landis is a web monkey for Island Books on Mercer Island, WA, where she also writes for the store’s journal, Message in a Bottle. She joined the publishing industry in 2004 with an internship at Simon & Schuster and worked as an assistant editor at Hyperion and a site merchandiser on the Amazon books team. A former professional ballerina, she’s the author of two novels about ballet, Girl in Motion, and the sequel, Breaking Pointe.