What Is A Good Book? Philosophical Response

Fair warning: this article will not give you advice on writing good books or a checklist you should run through when deciding whether to buy or read a book. I want to explore the meaning of the question itself, to take a philosophical look at it. Specifically, what do I mean when I evaluate a book as good or bad? It is a value judgement, an opinion, a familiar way of thinking about books and many other things. But what is behind the familiarity of this thinking? Indeed, what is a good book? Incidentally, this shows that practically any question can be turned into a philosophical one. It’s a talent that human beings have. But that is a story for another time. Back to books.

a photo of a bookshelf holding multiple books with colourful spines
My bookshelf

Recently I was listening to a podcast where the hosts – two stand-up comedians – invited a guest – a publisher and owner of a bookstore specialising in intellectual literature – to discuss many book-related topics; among them, the role and value of a book in a person’s life. I was somewhat surprised when one of the hosts said he did not consider George Orwell’s “1984” a good book. Unfortunately, he did not explain further, mentioning shortly that the narrative and the love story between two of the characters were strange and did not constitute anything remarkable. He then said he was shocked at how many negative reactions he received from people who perceived his value judgement as a personal attack on them. He realised that these people must have internalised the book to such an extent that they identified with at least some of the story’s elements, but this phenomenon was unclear to him; he could not relate.

Having heard this, I was doubly surprised. Firstly, I think “1984” is an excellent book with lots of interesting, insightful, provocative, and stimulating ideas about the fate of an individual in the face of society and other vital aspects of our social lives. As it happens, I am currently reading “1984”, and perhaps because of the freshness of the impressions, it astonished me that someone could find it dull. Secondly, what stunned me even more, was the lack of understanding the host had for the experience of people so impressed by a book that they internalised it as part of their identity. I have not had many such experiences, but I definitely can relate to the feeling that a book, a story, touches you on a level where you feel it has profoundly influenced who you are. Why? Because it has changed the way you think about yourself, others, life, the world, or anything that matters to you. Moreover, a book can even (re)shape what matters to you. That was also the comment the guest of the podcast made – books can change you.

And that was it. That was the benchmark he offered for measuring the ‘value’ of any book. The guest repeated it in various contexts throughout the episode, but in its shortest and most explicit expression, it was this – does the book make you think? If it does, it is a good book. Full stop. Virtual mic drop (I couldn’t help myself, it just fits here). 

It is a good, solid benchmark; I like and agree with it. When I heard the guest say it, I realised he was saying what I was thinking. He put my half-conscious, unformulated thoughts into words – into a shape that I recognised as the meaning of what I thought about good books. Not just books. All fruits of human creativity, including podcasts and games. If it makes me think, I consider it good, regardless of whether I agree with the ideas I find there or whether I experience an aesthetic pleasure or just fun. 

But why should it be about thinking? What about books that make you feel intensely? And what about “1984” – it makes me think, but apparently, not so much the podcast host, so is it a good book? Who gets to decide, and can there even be one verdict? If the same book can be good for you and bad for me, or vice versa, can we still somehow judge it as good or bad on the whole? Are we simply afraid of the uncertainty implied in multiplicity and want to feel safe in the security of a correct answer? I could go on with more questions, but I hope you will agree – the virtual mic drop was premature.

One of the exciting things about philosophical thinking, at least in some of its contemporary expressions (I admit that many in the academic philosophical quarters would not agree with me), is that you don’t try to find the ‘right’ answer to the question, but rather to expand your understanding of the matter. Often this happens through further questions. And then questioning the questions. In short – through thinking something over and taking time to do it. This does not mean that everything is equally relevant and so utterly irrelevant, and anything goes. Instead, it is a way of thinking that helps us become more open to the new and unexpected. More accepting of the uncertainty and less insistent on the final theory of everything that is all-encompassing, even if forcibly so. Maria Lugones calls this way of thinking a playful attitude:

“The playful attitude involves openness to surprise, openness to being a fool, openness to self-construction or reconstruction and to construction or reconstruction of the “worlds” we inhabit playfully”    

Lugones (1987, p.119)

Playing and constructing ‘worlds’ is something we do when we read (some) books. This, too, is a way a book can make me think. Being an intellectually inclined person, thinking and feeling are never too far apart in my case. But it’s not just me. I doubt that our still frequently accepted split between thoughts and emotions, thinking and feeling is something we actually experience. Have you ever felt without any thought at all? Have you ever thought in an utterly emotionless state? I suspect this artificial separation is at least as old as the historical tradition of some cultures to make a stark distinction between body and mind. If we are embodied living beings, then any book that makes me think also makes me feel. 

If this sort of thinking invites me to expand my understanding instead of closing it off with a ‘correct’ and final answer, I am encouraged to adopt a playful attitude. The seriousness of this playfulness is no joking matter. The stakes are much higher than in a game played merely to win. As Derrida suggested, the commitment of such a playful approach to thinking is the promise to keep the future open and not subject to this or that definitive solution we might want to apply to it. In his book “Derrida: A Very Short Introduction”, Simon Glendinning interprets this as “an intentional act that does not exclude within itself (through and through) a ‘letting happen’ of something unforeseeable, something unanticipatable” (2011, p.41). 

So, I do judge a book as good or bad; it is an intentional act – ‘does the book make me think’ criterion – but I do it in a keeping-future-open sort of way. I can change my mind due to some new, unexpected influences. Perhaps the interaction with others’ benchmarks – and there may be others without invalidating my current criterion – will reshape or expand the way I evaluate books. I will interpret as I go along, keeping my understanding both intentional and open. Is there a playful metaphor for this playful attitude?      

Imagine a video game where you expand your settlement or civilisation by moving into the parts of the territory that were dark on the map before you explored them. When you move, you literally go into the dark. You don’t know what you will find there; you will know only when you get there. Of course, you can stay in your current town or village where everything is well-lit, known and clear. But it doesn’t mean you will not receive visitors from ‘out there’ where it is dark and unknown. Some may be friendly, some hostile. And after all, let’s not forget about human curiosity. We want to know what’s out there. So we explore. The more we explore, the broader our understanding of the territory, which influences our interpretation of our place in it. This, in turn, affects what we think we can and cannot do and how we will proceed to play the game.

Life, of course, has infinitely more dark, unexplored parts of the ‘territory’ than any video game. And often, you cannot just start over. But regarding our understanding and value judgments, I find the image of the dark map gradually becoming visible as the player explores helpful. It contains both the intentionality of action and the openness to the unexpected that together enable exploration. Borrowing playfully from Gadamer, I propose that all fruits of human creativity, be it video games, books, or podcasts, are good when they expand being through meaning that emerges in our interaction with them:

“The work of art is conceived as an event of being… of an increase of being.

Gadamer (2013, p.151)

keep exploring!  

One thought on “What Is A Good Book? Philosophical Response

  1. Pingback: Spreading the Word: Deep Reading in the Digital Age – humanfactor

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