What makes a good book? Is it all about the narrative? The characters? The escapism/realism? Could it even be about how stellar that front cover looks? Well, it’s probably not a singular thing but all those qualities (yes, even the front cover) turned into one piece of work, designed to take the reader on a journey. In fact, if we were to boil great books down to one thing, they’re all about a journey in some way or another. Sometimes it’s literal journeys, characters making their way across great plains like that in The Lord of the Rings. Sometimes these journeys are more metaphorical, shrouded in insights meant to inspire something in the reader like in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Sometimes narratives don’t even look recognisably like a journey, instead being about character growth and reflection. However, whatever great book we read, there’s always a progression, a feeling of starting somewhere and ending somewhere (unless it’s Finnegans Wake, because you can start that book anywhere and still not have a clue what’s happening).
Fantasy thrives off this sense of journeying, almost turning it into a cliché when we find yet another set of characters who have travelled great lands to get somewhere and complete a goal. The most famous example of this will always be The Lord of the Rings, but it maintains its status as legendary because there’s much more than just a literal journey happening. What we also have is a progression of friendship, watching as Frodo seeks to save his friends by removing the seductive will of The Ring from their presence or as Gimli and Legolas set aside their differences and form one of the greatest bromances ever. Progression and by extension, journeying, happens through a connection of its characters, giving readers something much more than narrative that starts at point A and ends in point B.
Yet, sometimes these journeys aren’t easily recognisable. Smart dystopias thrive off trapping characters in a journeyless existence, offering false chances of escape and hounding the repetitive and often meaningless existence of their worlds. Both Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four utilise this claustrophobic feeling, and while its characters never free themselves from the society around them, what builds is an interaction with the reader to take them on a journey instead. By the cyclic nature of their novels, forcing us to end in the same position we begin in, it often helps elucidate the criticisms the authors are trying to unveil as they force us uncomfortably close to a society that has more similarities with the one we live in than we’re often aware of.
There are other forms of journeying though, all accomplishing something different. In Harry Potter, the journey until the final novel is about the progression of time and the fleshing of a world that readers begin to learn something in. In crime novels, it’s often the piecing of the clues to find the killer, offering readers hints of who it may be as we tirelessly guess before the narrative reaches its grand unveiling. Even books that are sometimes simplistic in their journeys, can create something magical by infusing it with a huge backdrop of humour or fleshing it to become something that feels real (Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels anyone?).
The simple fact is, that whatever good book we’re reading, you can usually spot some sort of journey, whether narratively or within yourself. All this means then is the answer to the question ‘what makes a good book’ is the journey it’s willing to take you on.