To an author, librarians are superheroes. First, they are incredible sources when we are researching and writing. Then, they are vital connectors for helping readers find our finished books. And if librarians in general are superheroes, Nancy Pearl is the superduperhero, the librarian so cool she has her own action figure. So when Nancy Pearl defines the four elements that make a person fall in love with a book, who wouldn't listen?
Story. Character. Setting. Language. Pearl calls these four elements doorways, "because when we open a book, read the first few pages, and choose to go on, we enter the world of that book." And since books take us places, I figure we might as well carry Pearl's four-door metaphor into sedan-land. That way, I can hotwire it and take it for a blog-entry spin.
Here's what Pearl means by her four doors:
A book heavy on story is a page-turner, and we fall headlong into its can't-wait-to-find-out-what-happens-nextness. What in graduate school I was taught to call narrative desire and what in real-life causes your honey to wake up at 2 a.m. and wonder why your bedside reading lamp is still on.
Pearl says a book heavy on character makes you feel so connected that when the book is over, it's like you've lost a friend. I'd amend that, because sometimes character can be captivating not because the person at the center of the book is drawn so well as to be endearing, but because that character is so outlandish, or repulsive, or... well, whatever it is, it's captivating.
Books heavy on setting are the ones that make you feel like you're in a place. Maybe a place familiar to you that you're amazed to find captured on the page. Maybe a place you've never been yet after reading the book you'd swear you know first-hand. Setting doesn't have to be a real place — just ask any science fiction fan, or the people who keep a map of Yoknapatawpha County pinned to their wall. It just has to be real to the reader.
Books heavy on language are the ones in which you can dwell in a sentence, or a phrase, the way someone inhabitants a formal garden. It's a deep sensory appeal, perhaps even meditative. You want to believe the world can be that beautiful, even though you know beyond the garden wall — and outside the covers of the book — it isn't.
According to Pearl, every book combines story, character, setting, and language — in different proportions. I know this as a reader. My reflex response is to say I'm most drawn to character. It's why I tend to prefer first-person narrators (although third-person narration that gets close inside a character's head, anything from Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine to Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson, also grabs me). But character is never enough.
If a book's language doesn't entice me — if I feel the phrasing is hackneyed, or flat, or just plain wrong for the characters and setting — I can't get beyond the first few pages. Lack of connection to a book's language is probably the biggest reason I end up disliking, and thus not finishing, something that someone has recommended. It doesn't matter if a good friend or a respected reviewer found the book pleasurable, if the language doesn't pull me in, I'm on the curb as the sedan drives off. Language matters that much.
But — and here's what's amazing — I would NEVER read a book primarily for the language. In fact, I often hit the brakes in reading a novel or a literary memoir or a short story because it seems overly involved with its own language, what I think of as the peril of the MFA program. It's the literary equivalent of a gorgeous (and expensive, they're always expensive!) pair of shoes that hurt so bad you'll never wear them.Shoes are functional. So is literature. It's about what it does for the reader, where it takes us.
Of course, it's tough to quantify books this way. I know that Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes has unforgettable characters, compelling language, and a vivid setting — though it's not much of plot-driven page-turner story (non-spoiler alert: in the next chapter the McCourts will still be poor and hungry, although they may be living in even more appalling circumstances than they are in this chapter). But what exact combination does the book offer of the elements that are there?
This question is even tougher when I apply it to my own book. The Secrets of Mary Bowser is about a woman who spied for the Union by pretending to be a slave in the Confederate White House. But it's not really a spy novel, in the traditional sense. It's about the character, and her relationships. It's about the settings — Richmond and Philadelphia, in the 1840s, '50s, and '60s — where she lives. It's about the language in which she tells her story and how that language rubs up against languages of those who have more power and more privilege than she does, and those who have less. I spend a lot more time on crafting sentences than a genre-fiction spy novelist does.
But ultimately, The Secrets of Mary Bowser is also about story: how does someone go from being slave to free, and then to a spy pretending to be slave? A lot happens in the book, although not in the way someone who's looking for a more conventional spy novel might expect.
Those potential missed expectations haunt me every time someone asks me what the book is about. I wish there were an easy way to communicate the complex alchemy of the four elements, rather than just offering a plot summary or an elevator-pitch of what inspired the book.
This is where the engine really purrs in Pearl's metaphorical sedan. Although some people read exhaustively on a topic/theme — any romance set in Renaissance England, or any police procedural set in a contemporary big city — mostly what a book is about isn't what makes a difference to a reader. It's the right combination of the four elements that wins us over. Which is why Pearl suggests creating pie-charts for books. Let a potential reader know how much of this book's allure lies in story, how much in setting, how much is character or language.
Is Pearl's sedan really possible — or is this just a bibliophile's concept car? Think of the algorithms that drive Pandora stations, but for books instead of songs. Although there's not yet an app for that, perhaps it's only time.
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Lois Leveen is an award-winning author whose work has appeared in the New York Times, on NPR, and in literary journals and anthologies. A former faculty member at UCLA and Reed College, she lives in Portland, Oregon.
Books mentioned in this post
Lois Leveen is the author of The Secrets of Mary Bowser