Think about your favorite authors, your favorite books . . . what is it about them that makes you love them above all the other authors you’ve read? The stories? The characters? The way they appear to relish the taste of words on the tongue? The way they’re unafraid to show the nitty-gritty of life? How they sweep you off to a new, distant place? What is it about those books and authors that makes them resonate with you in ways that other, perfectly good books and authors do not?
It doesn’t matter whether it’s nonfiction or fiction or what genre it is, what puts a book into the category of “favorites” for me is the writing itself. I can enjoy and be entertained by a book, but if the writing is clunky, it won’t be one of my favorites. (I’m looking at you, Dan Brown.) Clumsy writing is jarring and takes me out of the narrative, which isn’t the desired result if I’m reading, whether it’s to escape for an hour or two or to learn about something new.
On the other hand, finding a book with beautifully written descriptive passages and clever turns of phrase is like finding a Van Gogh in a thrift shop (not that that’s ever happened to me, but, I’d imagine it would be similar). Here are some examples from two of my favorite books:
From The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin, a description of Istanbul:
Fifteen hundred years of grandeur. Fifteen hundred years of power. Fifteen centuries of corruption, coups, and compromises. A city of mosques, churches, synagogues; of markets and emporia; of tradesmen, soldiers, beggars. The city to beat all cities, overcrowded and greedy.
From Johnathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke:
At the back of the house in a smutty little yard there was an apple tree which had once been a country tree – until grey London had come and eaten up all its pleasant green neighbours. Once in a fit of industriousness some unknown person had picked all of the apples off the tree and placed them on all of the windowsills, where they had lain for several years now – becoming first old apples, then swollen corpses of apples and finally mere ghosts of apples.