I read and review a lot of books. My pace has slowed down in the past few months as I have been busy with some other projects. When I’m in my groove, I read 3-4 books every week, depending on their complexity, length, and relation to my areas of particular interest.
Most of the books that I read are generally pretty good. A very few are really excellent. There are also some that are really terrible—not as few as should be.
There is often little correlation between the excellence of a book and the amount it is discussed in the media—that is, in print, newspapers, on television, and in various internet formats. In fact, the “buzz” surrounding a book has as much to do with the relative heft of the publisher, especially their publicity budget. Or, perhaps as significant, it may have a great deal to do with the influence of the person who wrote a book. This is, incidentally, why national politicians who can hardly think linearly or reason effectively can get multi-million dollar book deals, while professional writers and researchers struggle to find a home for their tightly reasoned texts.
These comments about the relative public interest in particular books explains why some books are best sellers and then flood the bargain racks of bookstores and choke out the shelves (and online listings) of used book sellers. In many cases, after a few months, some books have more economic value as toilet paper than as contributions to the good of society. Many of these books often end up in library book sales within a year or two of publication because they simply don’t get used, or their value is so short lived as to not be worth the time once whatever crisis has been overcome or once all the ideas have been spilled out in podcasts, interviews, and reviews.
Time has a way of sifting through the wheat and the chaff so that the best books often end up on the shelves of libraries for decades instead of months and additional printings are demanded. The list of books that actually warrant this sort of attention is relatively small and doesn’t necessary coincide with a place on the best seller lists.
Here are some common threads among books that I’ve reviewed that I think make them high quality with potential to endure:
1. Well-written with engaging prose: Some might think this goes without saying, but not all books that are published are written well. Even after the editorial process, there are often books that seem to have been written with little energy invested in engaging the reader. The copy may be clean—meaning that there are few grammatical inconsistencies—but the writing is dry.
There are some writers who make even otherwise boring topics interesting by writing well. There are other writers who make topics that should be engaging boring, often, I think, because the author has become bored with the topic.
2. Focused toward a particular thesis: Even memoirs should have a point. One of my chief frustrations when reading books is having to ask why a particular portion of the book was included in the final manuscript. I’ve been disappointed to find myself wondering what I was supposed to learn about a particular topic after I’ve finished a several hundred-page book. Even novels should have a point. Sometimes books have multiple points, but those points should be clear. If I wanted to solve a mystery, I’d be a detective.
3. Honest about their position: Some books are lauded as good books by people who know little about the topic at hand. This is often true about popular-level biographies that “revolutionize” the study of a certain person. Often, those books are written by non-experts. When people who have spent their life researching a person or an era read the book, however, they often find the reason this book offers a radically new perspective is because it ignores obvious data that point a different direction or misinterprets information in a way that a non-expert is likely to do. There are occasions where new evidence is uncovered that undermines standing positions, but most of the time when a book claims a new perspective, it is really just a bad perspective.
4. Represents other positions fairly: I have yet to come across a position that I hold or that anyone else holds that does not have reasonable arguments and counter-arguments. However, as with one book that I reviewed recently, sometimes authors are (a) ignorant, (b) lazy, or (c) dishonest enough that they are not able to accurately represent the position they are opposing. These books are useful for my collection when they hold views I disagree with because they provide me examples of the position that are easy to illuminate and disassemble—though they often represent the fringe and not the center of opposing positions, so this must be done illustratively. They do little for real progress in human knowledge because the author hasn’t taken the time (let’s be generous) to understand the viewpoint he or she is supposedly dismantling. When books that hack opposing viewpoints agree with me, they are often quick reads, but they are actually useless to me because they often fail to make a helpful argument for the absence of a real opponent. In fact, I dislike poorly argued books that I agree with more than nearly any other category.
5. Argue their position tightly: Even when I disagree with an author’s conclusions, I benefit from his or her argument when it is well made. In fact, I spend a great deal more time reading theologians with whom I disagree because the friction of their arguments—when they argue well—shapes my arguments and helps me make my case better. If we are arguing toward truth, and not simply for the sake of victory, this is the sort of conversation we should want to have.
There are certainly other attributes of a book that make them valuable. However, these five items are really the characteristics that I look for primarily as I review books on any topic.