Booking Through Thursday

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.

10 thoughts on “Flavor

  1. carol June 19, 2008 / 11:10 am

    Very interesting post. Unfortunately I haven’t read either of those books but I will add them to my list.

  2. Matthew June 19, 2008 / 11:48 am

    Well, since I called out Dan Brown, I’ll use him as an example of clunky writing. There’s a passage near the beginning, of Angels and Demons, I think (a book I enjoyed very much, by the way), where the main character looks in a mirror and pauses to contemplate his looks. It’s a vary cliche, beginning writer way to get in a character’s physical description. It’s better to have another character do it or to leave it out entirely. Also, when Brown has important information to tell the reader, he tends to stop all of the action and just have one of the character’s explain everything. It’s a very efficient way of doing things, but it’s not very elegant.

    Jason Goodwin, on the other hand, has the daunting task of telling a story set in the nineteenth century Ottoman Empire, a place most people know absolutely nothing about. He succeeds by describing the city–its sights and sounds and smells as the main character goes about solving the mystery at the heart of the plot. He throws in just enough information to keep the reader clued in, but the history and the setting really come alive through the characters and the events of the book. He never has to stop all of the action to explain anything.

  3. Matthew June 19, 2008 / 11:51 am



    I should proofread.

  4. Sally June 19, 2008 / 1:33 pm

    You are correct: it’s important to show the personality rather than tell it.

  5. CJHill June 19, 2008 / 4:51 pm

    Great post and I completely agree. Clunky writing will ruin the experience completely and it will not lend me to reading the author again.

    Mine’s up.


  6. rebecca June 20, 2008 / 10:59 am

    one of the most frustrating books i’ve ever read was “blindness” by jose saramango, which will soon come out into a movie. actually, i never did finish reading it (got halfway thru and gave up). the plot was good but i had a problem with the style of writing. saramango writes very, very long sentences, sometimes a page long and with very little punctuation (it drove me crazy!) also, no quotation marks around dialogue! who the heck is speaking! arrghh! so, if you’re not familiar with this book, browse through it at the bookstore and see what i mean. if you buy and don’t like it, don’t say i didn’t warn you!

    and, like you, i enjoy books with descriptive, lyrical, beautifully written passages.

  7. John June 21, 2008 / 10:31 pm

    Agree being well written and “simple” to read is a key for me. Read The Da Vinci Code and enjoyed it for the plot and enjoyed the film but won’t read or see either again. Whereas something like The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth I will read again or The Magus by John Fowler which I did read several times!This weeks post

  8. lonesomesparrow October 30, 2008 / 4:15 pm

    just came upon your site and liking it. Never met another person who loved or even read the book Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I loved it too. keep up the good work.

  9. Don September 10, 2009 / 12:33 pm

    I think the mirror character description is lazy writing too. I was surprised as I read “19 Minutes” by Jodi Picoult. She uses the ‘mirror’ thing twice in the first chapter.

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