What Makes a Book the Book of Your Life
The characteristics of books that can leave an indelible mark on a reader and a writer
“Few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart.” — The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Ever since I started to write regularly, I realised that I became a different reader. I’m not just superficially leafing through the pages of a book, I don’t just enjoy the story or root for the heroes and villains, I don’t just read anymore: I absorb. And I absorb with a writer’s mind.
I still devour the characters and soak up the stories, I breathe in the air they breathe out and I hold my breath as they suffer, I laugh when they are happy and I cry when I can’t take it anymore. But it’s not the same passive reading anymore, it’s labour. I analyse and dissect, stories, people, paragraphs, words. I get lost in the flow of chapters, contemplating structure and style.
This made me a lot more critical and picky. It’s not enough to read just any book. Not every story is worth my time. Not every character deserves my attention. All words are not equal.
At first, I thought it was a bad thing. It seemed like a bad thing because I stopped enjoying a lot of books, I started them and I either finished them out of discipline or just put them away. I lost interest after bad dialogues, got put off by useless characters thrown in randomly, confusing storylines bored me to death.
I kept going back to novels I had already read a hundred times to find peace in the beauty and familiarity, picking apart well-known stories entertained me more than to give chance to new ones that might disappoint.
And they kept me captured for another time, again and again, always making me feel, always making me smile or laugh or get excited at the right places — even when I knew it already by heart.
I also realised that when I choose books to read, I read for pleasure more than for information. I read to get away from reality, not to add more layers to it with habits, productivity or philosophical thoughts about the aspect of it. The reader in me is thirsty for the feelings that can wash over me while reading a book, not really looking for bits and pieces of new knowledge.
And it also gave me a harsh realisation. As a writer-blogger, I tend to lean towards self-help because it is a lucrative, useful and helpful topic. But just like reading self-help doesn’t fill me with joy, writing self-help also leaves me unsatisfied. No wonder that no self-help book ever made it to my favourite list.
I might write self-help but my heart is only full of fiction that helps you escape reality — preferably with a dollop of magic in it.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind captured my heart in an instance and added itself to the shortlist of my all-time favourite books, next to One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Master and Margarita, The Martian Chronicles, The Kite Runner, and The Time Traveller’s Wife (just to name the obvious top 5).
And while the long list is a lot longer (with some Hemingway, Vonnegut, Kundera, Joseph Heller, to name a few), it is plain to see what makes them all extraordinary for me. It might vary for you what makes a book special. This is my takeaway.
Here’s what can make a book the book of your life.
It’s simple and complex at once
The Shadow of a Wind is a romantic or neo-romantic novel that tells a story within a story about a young boy, Daniel, who finds a book in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books that changes his life. It is set in Barcelona in the 1950s, jumping back and forward a few decades to tell us a magical story of undying love, raging hate, ancient enemies and unforgettable books. As it unfolds we can see how Daniel’s life becomes one with the story of the book he discovered, how he manages friendships, love, family and loyalty. It’s a mysterious detective story that pans out on the streets and alleys of Barcelona, letting us in on the horrors of the civil war and the second world war as well.
The book is about love and books, and as such, it is incredibly simple — the key themes come back at every turn. But the story itself is rich and complex, the words the writer uses are exquisitely chosen, and it’s full of hidden treasures to unearth.
There are great characters you can fall in love with
The average reader doesn’t understand character building and they don’t have to. All they see is that the people in the book get more vivid, loveable or detestable by each and every page. All they feel is their own love and hatred, excitement or doubt about certain characters- as they navigate through their lives and the story. There has to be at least one character to love and one to despise.
In The Shadow of the Wind, there are no characters that leave you without emotion. It’s impossible not to love them, fear them, be entertained by them. Even the people who appear once have something memorable to them — their cruelty, their ignorance, their stupidity, their smile.
There is a story that captures you
Writing is about storytelling and not every story is worth telling. Not all love stories make you cry at the end. Not all dramas leave you frustrated. Sometimes stories are just not good enough to tell them publicly. This is why I think that not everyone should write a book — or at least they shouldn’t expect it to be a bestseller.
In this book, the story is complex but easy to follow anyway — as it follows a strict chronology just like a family saga should. It is told from one single perspective — that of Daniel — and it never gets boring.
The idea of the story within the story, and the book even has the title of the book it is about, is unique and interesting. Love stories, lives, different paths in the pursuit of happiness are intertwining and there is nothing more you want than to unreel the messy threads with the drops of information you learn along the way. This book has it all from the beginning to the end, you find hidden treasures and secret boxes to unwrap and the story keeps unfolding in an infinite way — always another layer, always another perspective.
There are magic and mystery that keeps you wondering
In the books I find perfect for me, there is always an element of magic and mystery. They all balance carefully on the fine line between reality and magic. Marquez with its flagship magical realism, Bulgakov with its Russian surrealism, Bradbury with the hints of science-fiction — all of them just mystical and magical enough to be beautiful but they stay plausible in a satiric and realistic way.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón sneaks in magic by crossing over to the fictional story of the book in his novel that mysteriously invades the reality of the story up until the final point where the magic is explained and still leaves you thrilled. Just like a magician’s show, when you know there has to be an explanation but you still marvel at how they pull out that endless string of scarves from the hat, right in front of you.
And it is set in a magical city (yes, I know, I am massively biased) that adds another layer of mystery, but it wouldn’t be tangible without Zafón’s lively words. The magic lies in the mastery he weaves with his words.
There is beauty that mesmerises you
Ever since I was young, it has been the words that mesmerized me. I devoured poetry to immerse in the splendour of four perfectly crafted lines that told the story of a whole universe. I marvelled at how punctuation could change everything. How one perfect word was enough to make me feel what the writer wanted me to feel.
Zafón is a master of his words. The expressions and words he uses to describe how the light hits the pavement or how an old book smells make you forget about your own reality and transports you through time and space to a Barcelona in the fifties. You can breathe in the air that comes from the sea, you see the flickering lights of the Rambla and you can feel the worn out spines of the books in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.
By the time I write this, I already read it in Hungarian, English and I am halfway through the Spanish edition. His words stay intact through the works of translation and transmit the same feelings in all three languages. (And just for the sake of reading this book in Spanish it has been worth it learning the language.)
You wish you had written it
As I look around the books I appreciate more than others, I remember the feeling I felt when I first read them: I wished I had written them. It’s not professional jealousy, it’s admiration at its purest form. That’s the ultimate sign for a perfect book for me. I wish I came up with the story and the characters, I wish I had the right words to express what I want to say just like the writers I admire.
I wish that at some point I will be able to write just one paragraph or one sentence that can come close to the perfection they could deliver.
I know that reading is one of the most subjective and intimate experiences you can have and your checklist might be different from what I collected here but one thing is sure: a book that can steal your heart and soul for a few hours is definitely a great book whether you read as a reader or a writer.