I’ve found that in adulthood, the immersive, soul-tugging books we read as children – the very ones which made us love to read – are somehow harder to come by. When I was a kid I would spend hours lost in the world of the Boxcar Children or the Babysitter’s Club, but there have only been three books, in recent years, which have given me the same feeling:
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
These books have enough in common that I think it’s worth, as a writer, examining how they overlap. Here’s what I can think of:
They’re long books
Is there something about length that’s especially important? Perhaps it gives me time to submerge myself in the universe.
They contain vivid, rural settings
Clarke’s descriptions of the English countryside and Tartt’s of the seasonal changes in Vermont – the heavy snow, the springtime rosebushes that smell like raspberries – make the reading agreeable. In modern prose I find there is often too much obsession with making the words economical, rather than sensual. But there’s something specifically about the non-urban that I seem to especially like. Kostova takes the reader all through Europe, but she doesn’t focus on London and Paris. She goes to lonely Oxford, a monastery in the south of France, and Bulgarian villages. Strong descriptions of aged architectural structures also work – ivy over stone, foreboding turrets and towers, etc. The details are never stark, but, regardless of their actual content, they’re sensual.
They contain vivid descriptions of books and libraries
Clarke’s wizards are well-learned book collectors; Tartt’s students study Latin and Ancient Greek; Kostova’s vampire hunters are Oxford scholars. This is obviously appealing to me as a bookish student.
Supernatural things happen in otherwise ordinary worlds
Wizards in 19th century England; a reconstructed Bacchanal in 20th century Vermont; ghosts and doors that weren’t there the day before; an ancient and holy army of vampire hunters in Turkey; books and books and magic and things that prickle goose bumps up your arms, shivers down your spine.
I have little interest in either starkly realistic books or worlds of pure fantasy. There’s something about opening up the possibility of the impossible in our world, though, that appeals to me immensely.
When I finish them, I feel sad, instead of accomplished
When I finish most books, I sort of sigh with relief and immediately go onto Goodreads, so that I can log another book in towards my yearly reading goal. But with these books, I carry a certain nostalgia around for days – the feeling people talk about when they say they feel as if a beloved neighbor has moved, or even died, after finishing a story.
I actually didn’t think this one was important at first, but it may be what makes the last point possible. Susanna Clarke’s book doesn’t have an epilogue, but the two others tell you very firmly what ends up happening to each of the characters. Whether what happens is good or bad, explaining it robs the reader of the chance to imagine the future of the characters on their own. I know John Green hates that, but I think it can be good. Because when you’re not left wondering what happens to these characters, they’re truly robbed from you, and that’s what leaves you with the sad feeling. Which, oddly, is what you’re aiming to get.
I’m sure there’s other stuff, but these are the main ones I can think of right now. This very much caters to my personal tastes, giving me a guide of what I should perhaps focus on in my own writing (write the books you’d love to read!), and obviously preferences vary widely.