On Reading Good Books, and Bad Books

Should we read both good books and bad ones?

Like many writers, I read. A lot. I’ll pretty much willingly give any book you hand me a chance, though I’ll still devour anything YA in a matter of days.

When you read an average of two books a week, you stumble upon some amazing reads. I’m 200 pages shy of finishing The Infinite In Between at the moment, and for reasons I can’t yet fully analyze, it’s wonderful.

You also come across plenty of books that just aren’t good. I don’t subscribe to the belief that a writer should only stick to reading books that are widely publicized and discussed. Every once in awhile I like finding titles no one else has heard of. There’s a chance they could be really good, and just underrated (like the Pendragon series). But there’s a pretty good chance they’re … eh. Just not well put together.

I try not to be over-critical – if a writer has a book out, and they’re not a total jerk about it, I’m happy for them. In publishing, if you have a good story that’s likely to sell, you have a pretty good chance of landing a deal. But I’ve read two kinds of ‘eh’ books – books that are fairly well written, but hollow, story-wise, and books that have intriguing stories with poor, hard-to-get-through writing.

I think it’s important that we read a mix of everything – good and bad. While the good, well-written stories are enjoyable, and sometimes even motivate us to go out and work at our own unfinished projects, less-than-impressive books help us refine our critiquing skills. We see mistakes we’ve made in the past, or things we still do. We notice weaknesses in different parts of the whole. We have that “I would have done this differently” thought – not at all a bad thought, as long as you don’t go tweeting the author directly about it (cringe).

Weirdly, I remember all of the bad books I’ve read over the past few years. They stick out to me in a different way than the really good ones do. It’s not that I don’t like them – I finish reading every single book I start, because I think every author deserves that from me. I just hold onto memories of stories I couldn’t wait to be finished with.

One of the markers of a good story is that it’s nearly impossible to put down. One of the markers of good writing is that it impresses you from start to finish – the kind of writing you pull quotes from because they amaze you so much. I suppose one definition of a good book is that it excels in both of these areas. But just because a book doesn’t, doesn’t mean it’s awful. It just might get only three stars from me on Goodreads (I somehow manage to avoid one- and two-star reviews) which for me means I just didn’t really enjoy it or wasn’t impressed by it.

Reading is essential for writers, in terms of improving skills and initiating a continuous flow of new ideas. Some people only read recommended books – the good ones. Maybe that’s the same mindset as “junk food isn’t good for me so I’m never going to eat it ever” as opposed to “every once in awhile is great.” What do you think?

What do you consider to be a good book? What makes a book “bad”? Do you think it’s a good idea to read both good and bad books, as a writer?

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

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