Bookstores are one of my favorite in-town time sucks. Browsing without buying is a supremely satisfying–and, yes, supremely frustrating–experience. My shelves are overflowing with books I haven’t yet read, but the siren song of all the other good ones out there keeps me coming back to prowl the aisles.
I’ve mentioned in these pages before that books make up the bulk of our material wealth. Reading is the ultimate in entertainment–portable, smart, stimulating, and inspiring. I was raised to be a reader (thanks, mom!) and a reader I shall ever be.
But I have a problem. As much as I love the printed page, as much as I want to surround myself with books and make enough regular trips to the book store to do so, I find it almost impossible to shop for novels. I’ve been on a steady diet of nonfiction recently because nonfiction is easy: provided the subject matter is sufficiently enthralling, I can forgive quite a lot of bad writing. But in fiction, a compelling story doesn’t forgive bad writing. In fact, just the opposite is true: I will keep reading even the most formulaic or boring or awful story if it is well-written.
Case in point: I hated–no, loathed–Wuthering Heights. But I also couldn’t put it down. Yes, it’s a classic. Yes, it’s on many must-read lists. Yes, the Bronte sisters are landmark writers simply by virtue of being able to put pen to paper despite being told that possessing a vulva made that an anatomic impossibility (it was a strange age for medicine). Heathcliff and Catherine are possibly some of the most unlikeable characters ever conjured, despite the high romance they’re associated with. I really didn’t care what happened to either of them, and would have gladly put the book aside and never opened it again.
Except. Except: it is marvelously, fluidly, poetically written. Watching Bronte’s prose spool off across the page was like watching a master sculptor or painter or woodworker–each carefully constructed sentence was a beautiful piece of a magnificent whole.
I have never in my life so resented an amazing writer. I resented that her writing was so good, it kept me involved in the inane, petty, cruel, and pointless intrigues of two weak-minded souls. But I didn’t want the book to end, because of those words. That’s the power of a fine writer: she weaves together a net of hooks, that catches and holds and sticks in your mind long after you’ve shut the back cover.
Words are important. How words fit and flow together is important. I can’t tell you why I make this distinction, and it’s probably not particularly fair. But in nonfiction, the facts at hand are enough to hold my interest, good writing or no. With fiction, no story in the world is compelling enough to make me put up with cumbersome prose. And so, picking out novels is hard. I’ve been disappointed by too many, too often misled by clever overleaf blurbs or intriguing cover art. Some of my favorite novels I’ve discovered by chance or by word-of-mouth. Some of the biggest let-downs have come because of glowing reviews or convincing PR.
So tell me, who is your favorite wordsmith? What novel sings to you, pulls you along the current of its story on a sturdy raft of words? Who writes novels that aren’t just stories, but gems that happen to glitter out a tale? What should I read next?