What’s a good book?
There is a competition to find the best Irish book of the last decade. It’s a nice idea. It gets people reading. It gets people talking about books. It’s publicity for the authors and publishers.
But the question is – what’s a good book? What exactly is it that makes a book good? Is it based on sales, on popularity, on critical (who are the critics?) acclaim, the best plotlines, characterisations, or fine writing, or a mysterious undefinable something?
I can’t claim to have all read the entire 50 titles on the short list. This means I couldn’t possibly be an objective judge. I wonder how many people have read all 50 in all their entirety? There are titles in there that very likely would not be companions on a typical bookshelf. I can’t imagine a Seamus Heaney fan having much in common with the Cathy Kelly club? Maybe I’m being too presumptive.They are, after all, on the same list here.
A problem with these types of polls is the Recency-Effect. This competition has a ten-year span. People are more likely to remember those books published in the last 2 years than in the early part of the decade. I myself am guilty of this. 2 books stand out for me on the list and both are relatively recent. The first is Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture – a book that had me falling our of the bottom of the bed, wrapped in the duvet. It’s such a beautiful compelling read that you can’t put it down even at 4am when you know you should be sleeping. The other is Let The Great World Spin by Colm McCann. This has its harrowing moments but is astounding inside the lifes and loves and adventures and entanglements of its characters.
Another example of the recency effect is the last-book-read situation. I’ve just put down Not Untrue & Not Unkind by Ed O’Loughlin. Let just say that I won’t be quite so dismissive of journals reporting from war-torn under-developed nations anymore. This is a book that made it to Booker longlist and won many plaudits. Yet it is not on this Book of the Decade list.
I know what I like in a good book. I know what I don’t like. I can’t see myself reading either of the sports books books on the list. Are they great books? Am I depriving myself of greatness by not reading them. Should they be on the list? I don’t know.