narrowing reading preferences

But What Do You Really Want in a Book?

narrowing reading preferences

I don’t know if it’s because I’ve had the time or more due to the slump I was in earlier this year, but I’ve started to get pretty meta in thinking about my reading—what tends to really work for me versus what ends up just “good”? Thankfully, I had a bit of a perfect storm over the last week that helped me make some distinctions.

I went from an incredibly engaging read of Helen Philipp’s The Beautiful Bureaucrat to another win with Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis while also working on Socratic Salon discussions for several books I absolutely loved. The Beautiful Bureaucrat had me questioning reality throughout, while also constantly playing with the mechanics of language. Fifteen Dogs was playful and ridiculously creative, but kept me thinking with its philosophical questions. Many similar things can be said of books like The Shore and All the Birds, Singing, which I’ve been digging into with my Socratic Salon counterparts over the past few weeks.

At the same time I was also reading Jami Attenberg’s Saint Mazie, which appealed to me for several reasons—the Prohibition-era story of a girl with serious moxie helping people who cross her path. While I enjoyed Mazie’s story, I found that it very quickly fell into the “good” category and lacked the spark of the other books I was pouring through.

But why? Though Saint Mazie is an epistolary novel, the structure is rather straightforward and there isn’t much to dig into or question. The characters are interesting and the writing is quite good, but when reading it alongside the others there was a clear distinction. In the end, I think I need a novel to have deeper elements I can turn over or incredible writing to cross over into that “love” territory. I even came across a line in Fifteen Dogs that summed up what really appeals to me.

“These works were, it seemed, created to evade understanding while inviting it.”

I’ve long known that I read for style, so this isn’t really a surprise. But knowing how narrow the window of that reading preference is, it feels particularly hard to pick out books based solely on their summaries. Looking for new books by searching through comparative titles seems to be the best strategy, but it’s definitely hard to nail down how appealing a book is when I care much more about the feel of a book than its plot or characters.

Have you narrowed down what your specific reading preferences are? How did you figure out what you really want in a book? Has this helped you pick out books that you love or made it a little trickier?


  • For me setting is important. I read to go some place else. Foreign cultures and countries, especially South Asia, are my soft spot. I’m also a sucker for anything set at a boarding school. But on top of that the writing needs to be good.
    Since starting my blog i’ve read much more widely than i ever have before, but that is also because I’ve had more time. I read many more books now that just don’t work for me. I’m sure this will all change very soon as I’m going back to school. Less time = reading only in my sweet spot.

    • I’m with you on books set at boarding school! I’m a total sucker for that, but have been burned by it a bit this year (The Half Brother).

      • Boarding schools are one of my weaknesses, too, but going by setting alone can leave me wanting unless there’s something else that hooks me.

    • So great that you’ll be going back to school! I know what you mean about being willing to read more widely with more time – when you’re pressed it becomes a little trickier.

  • Oh wow – great discussion topic! I’ve been pondering the same thing this year because I feel like I’ve read way less “blow my mind” books this year than last year. I’m almost questioning my ability to pick books I’ll like! And, like you, reading the blurbs only gets me so far. I’ve found the writing makes a huge difference to me, so reading excerpts or quotes helps. But, I still haven’t found that magic key. I also think mood comes into play a bit with me. Sometimes I want to really dig into something, but sometimes I’m more in the mood for something lighter or more straightforward (but not too fluffy), or sometimes I want a page turner that will keep me up at night.
    Saint Mazie, for example. I really enjoyed it and it didn’t really bother me that there wasn’t something to dig deep into. It’s definitely not a discussion book, but I liked the writing style and love reading about quintessential NYC characters. A solid 4 star read for me, but not 5. But, it certainly serves a purpose…great choice for the beach!
    I feel like you have a very distinct niche/style that you prefer (but, correct me if I’m wrong!)…whereas I’m a little more all over the map. But, the one constant for me is the writing.

    • I definitely have a very distinct niche (at least when it comes to fiction – I’m more across the board with nonfiction). I try to read outside it as much as possible, but I think maybe that’s what gets me slumping.

  • One more thought – what really sends me from like to love, I think, are the intangibles (to use a sports term). BUT – how do you pick books in advance based on intangibles?? How perfectly does the author describe situations, feelings, types of people, etc? How much does the book pull me in emotionally? That’s hard to do!

    • This is what I’ve been thinking about a ton over the past few days. I really, really wish Edelweiss would let you search based on comparative titles (even though those aren’t necessarily foolproof).

      • Yep – I agree. Sometimes comparisons can set you up for disappointment. Maybe…this is where bloggers come in. We can speak to a book’s intangibles and help others make better choices for themselves. But, how do we make good choices for ourselves (as often early readers)?

  • Books on the Table

    This is an interesting question. I could drive myself crazy if I felt I had to LOVE every book I read, and sometimes I fall victim to that line of thinking, because I have huge stacks of books to read. I’ll be reading something fairly good and think that I really should put it down and read something else, because that next book might be amazing. So I’ve decided that if a book is holding my interest and involving me on an emotional level, that’s enough for me — I’ll always be glad I read the book. The writing style is very important, but the subject matter is too. I want to feel that I’m learning something, whether it’s something tangible (a historical or scientific topic) or something less tangible (human nature).

    • That’s such an interesting thought about wanting to feel like you’re learning something, and I think I’m probably the same way…I don’t want to feel like I’m wasting my time.

    • I’m going off of Ann’s comment because I feel the same way. My mood dictates a lot of what I read and I have to come away with something. Anything. Even if it’s one line out of the entire book. I can tell a days/weeks later which books didn’t work because I can hardly remember what I read. Or maybe that’s just an age thing. ;)

  • This is an interesting question, and one that I think is difficult for a lot of readers who are not just drawn to books based on plot. I crave different types of books based on my mood, so sometimes I want a quick read with quirky characters and snappy dialogue and unique world-building, or sometimes I want a slow, thoughtful book with sentences meant for savoring. When I look at my favorites, what they all have in common is some sort of irony, so it’s definitely hard to discern that from most reviews or blurbs.

    • Exactly – I think so much of what I’m looking for in a book can be hard to convey in a summary or review (which…oh god…what am I even doing here?? haha), so I think I end up with quite a few misfires.

  • I am a mood reader, and so it is hard for me to judge ahead of time if a book might work for me or not. Sometimes, the language or style is so wonderful that I don’t mind if the characters aren’t all that great. Other times, I get so emotionally involved in the characters’ lives that I don’t mind a style that I don’t like all that much. But then I always wonder whether I would have liked a book better had I read it at a different time. Most annoying are those 4-star books that are very good, but not great. I try to remind myself that I need these books to then really appreciate a 5-star book. And as annoying as reading slumps are, it always feels wonderful when that one book comes along that pulls you out of it.

  • Great question! I think I’m still trying figure this out. Right now I think I’m drawn to books that have a unique plot or well-developed characters, but it’s like a treasure hunt trying to pick the right book to find those characters. Sometimes I think my expectations are a little too high and I shouldn’t be surprised that some books just aren’t for me. Do you try to manage your expectations about a book before reading it?

    • I do think expectations can come in to play in some cases, though I try not to let expectations get too crazy!

  • This is such a good question. I think I’m the same way in that my favorite books are the ones that make me think or spark something in my brain (rather than just having an enjoyable plot or characters), and it’s often hard to tell if a book will do that from the description on Edelweiss. I’m not really sure what the answer is, except for reading fewer books in advance and waiting for reviews from trusted sources.

    • Good call on waiting on books, Leah, but it can be so hard when you’re faced with a fabulous cover and intriguing blurb! I guess I need to cultivate some patience. :)

      • Oh, I am terrible at putting this into practice. Partly because I can’t resist all the pretty books, but also it can be nice to read a book before the hype train colors your perception of it; it’s just so hard to know ahead of time what the big books will be!

    • Yeah, I definitely think we’re at a disadvantage whenever we read in advance. It can be hard to pick up much on style from reviews, but knowing whether or not people I trust have enjoyed books is always helpful.

  • What a thoughtful question! My answer is simply that I want it all. Of course, I never seem to find it all. I crave an emotional investment in a book. I want to feel and empathize with the characters, have a vivid picture of the setting, and I want the story to flow easily and make sense with a touch of realism. I honestly don’t know how an author can pull me in and keep me invested anymore because I’ve found myself becoming nit picky with my books as of late. I’m a person who will value plot overall, but if the characters aren’t developed properly to engage me, then the plot can easily be lost. In the same vein, I can be turned off by what I consider to be immature sentences, those sentences that read as though a 6th-grader wrote them, but a really great plot can usually make up for that. It’s always a hit or miss for me when choosing a book. Even though I can download and read a sample of an ebook, that sample is only 10% of the whole, a whole that can fall apart quickly. If I’m browsing a bookstore, the same sampling applies. I guess I’m resolved to always having a hit or miss and hoping to find that gem that will sparkle when choosing what I read.

    • I’m not much of an e-reader, but I really should take more advantage of the samples that are available – that would actually seem to help me more since I read for style than someone who reads for plot/characters. But you’re right that hit or miss is always going to happen (and it’s something we do need as much as we don’t like it!).

  • Oh, I love this post! It must be that we’re both analytical nerdettes, but I too am constantly trying to figure out just what it is that makes a book a winner for me.

    I agree that giving me questions and ideas to chew on is key, though I have had a few enjoyable romps with stories that feed it all to me (The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry comes to mind). More often, though, I want to be left mulling things over rather than completely satisfied. On that note, I also really love some ambiguity in a story, and I think that’s a HUGE reason I loved All the Birds.

    I know the pain of not being sure if a book will work for you from the blurb. Just this morning I submitted some DNF feedback on NetGalley for a book with a promising premise but prose that just didn’t cut it.

    Speaking of All the Birds… off to the Socratic Salon!

    • Ambiguity is huge for me, too…it can be one of the biggest things that leaves me mulling and sometimes having everything tied up too neatly drives me insane.

      Oh, we switched to Thursdays now, so you have one more day to wait :(

      • Right? Life doesn’t work that way! (Not that books have to mirror real life, but still.)

        Ack, now what will I do with the rest of my day? ;) Looking forward to tomorrow!

  • I have been trying to figure this one out, too lately, because of a question I got from a commenter on one of my posts (his question was simply that he wondered what it is that I look for in a book). A question much harder to answer than I first thought. After reading your posts and everyone’s comments, it sounds like most of us are all trying to drive at the same idea of that certain something.
    I always remember what Gretchen Rubin said in The Happiness Project that we are all happier when we are growing in some way. If we translate that over into our reading, than we probably like the books best that make us ‘grow’; the ones that teach us something, or get us thinking in a new way. And, I’m not sure that there is any way to know that a book is going to do that for sure until you are reading it. And, everyone’s area of ‘growth’ is not likely to be the same, so you also can’t always go by recommendations.
    I like what TJ said about the 4 stars being necessary for the 5 stars to be so great. Even if a book is not my favourite doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it and get something out of it.
    Great post, Shannon!

    • I totally agree on the idea of growth and learning – that’s a great measure…and can definitely mean different things, but I think it’s something that’s also pretty easy to feel as you’re reading or when you’re done.

  • Interesting post! I really need to be connected to the characters and plot. I personally don’t like to “work” too hard at my reading because for me it is a way to unwind and decompress. I love that you have a different reading style than me, however, because it is always interesting to get different takes on a book.

  • Beth

    This is a great question both in itself, and in its timing. I’m currently training to work the information desk at my library, and one of the things I was learning about just the other day was reader’s advisory tools and appeal–what is it that people like about the books they read? It got me thinking about what “Appeal” factors I like, and your question has furthered these thoughts! However, I’ve found that the answer for me is not one or two things. I like a LOT of different things. I like a wide range of genres, styles, etc. The things I find most appealing are strong character development and a consistent tone, I find.

    • It’s interesting to know that librarians use the same process for recommending books, though I bet it can be hard if patrons haven’t thought as much about what appeals to them!

  • I read for entertainment and plot. I skip descriptions, chase scenes, sex scenes, and long mental ponderings. This means I finish books pretty fast. I like books where things are revealed slowly.

  • I guess I like style and story. If you have just a cool style then a book still can get a bit boring alla Henry James-ish. But a good story can be ruined too if it’s told like a dud. It needs to have good aspects of Both.

  • I read for story, for sure, but not exclusively. I never feel like I’ve gotten a handle on my preferences — I just get a whole ton of books on every library trip and see what sticks. I did get super excited when you said “epistolary novel,” however.

  • An awesome reading experience. Something memorable. Something that will make an impression!

  • Lindsey Stefan

    This is a really interesting post, Shannon. I will be thinking about it for a while, but I know one thing that decides the good/amazing thing for me. I just finished a book today and it was fine, good even. It was never going to fall into that category of “amazing” because I knew exactly what was going to happen within a chapter or two. I guess I like some unpredictability in my reads!

    • Oh, that’s totally a killer for me too! Even though I’m not driven by plot, it drives me insane if I can track everything before I’ve even read it.

  • I agree, it’s SO hard to tell just from a synopsis if you’re going to like a book or not. I don’t think I have full understanding on what *makes* a book for me. I, like you, care less about plot than other things, such as style, writing, and character development, and often the synopsis really only focuses on the plot. I’ll give it some thought, and see if I can pick out common threads in what have been my recent GREAT reads. Great food for thought, as always :)

    • I really appreciate it when a synopsis will throw in some points on style or format of the book – that’s when I know it’s one I need to jump on!

  • Love this post, Shannon; so thought-provoking! Let’s see…I know that I really need to be able to connect to the characters; if I can’t, then the story had better be pretty good! Generally speaking, I read for entertainment; I have enough shit going on in my own life to “delve into” without having to do it all the time while I read. Having said that, I have a tendency to gravitate toward stories about characters who are kind of broken; those are my people! I think this knowledge has definitely helped me figure out which books are really going to be winners and which ones I might just read because I need something easy. Thanks for getting me thinking about my choices!

  • Interesting topic and it’s one I’ve been mulling over lately. I would have said that I’m good at knowing what I’ll love but I’ve been burned a few times recently soooo maybe not? I think the overwhelming choices are making me lose my touch. I need to step back for a minute.

    • Particularly in the beginning of the year, I feel like I kept missing the mark in what was clicking for me…it seems like it’s gotten better, but it has definitely taken some thought.

  • Jennine G.

    When I think about it, I do have favorite topics, but generally I read anything that sounds good, which I guess means I’ve not thought through my list enough to label what I like. I know I like time travel/reborn and plot twists.

    • Plot twists are usually the one thing I really look forward to in a plot, as long as I can’t see them coming from too far away!

  • I’m not an extremely picky reader. I enjoy a range of genres (even though crime novels are my favourites) but I really can’t stand epistolary novels, and I have some issues with second-person or alternating first-person narrative. I do love books with great plot twists and multifaceted characters.

    • Books with alternating narrators can be so tricky to nail! I’ve had both good and bad experiences, but it definitely takes a great writer to get it.

  • I’ve delayed responding to this as I’ve been mulling this question over; it’s a big one! It’s almost easier to name things I DON’T need in a book. I don’t need to feel transported. I don’t need likable characters. I don’t need symbolism or eight layers of meaning to parse through and unwrap (I read complicated stuff in my day job, the last thing I want in my pleasure reading is a shit-ton more interpreting to do).

    What I do need depends somewhat on what I’m reading, and I hate that sounds like a cop-out. Mystery/thriller, I need some sense of dread, anticipation, my-pants-are-on-fire-and-I-don’t-care-ness. General fiction-wise, I’m a word nerd, my favor is easily bought with a beautiful turn of a phrase. And yet, lean, quite simple prose is also a favorite, as is smart dialogue. I don’t need all of those things at once, but I need one or more of them in healthy doses.

    Overall, I need some resonance or connection that can’t be described because it isn’t objective. I just finished a book I started out wanting to date, but by the end of the first quarter I kind of wanted to see other people. The writing was good, the characters interesting, the themes smart and not overdone. So why did I stop connecting? I can’t tell you, and that irks me. Sometimes, it just is/isn’t for reasons that can’t be explained. And when those unknown bullseyes are hit, it’s just the best.

    • It can be so frustrating to try to figure out when you run into a book that just runs off track like that – I think those are the books that bother me the most. Or the titles that just never quite click and I can’t figure out why. But you’re so right about the surprises…I love those, too!

  • I definitely read for characters, with style coming second and plot last. As long as I have a well-developed character with a beautiful/intelligent writing style I’m happy. I tend not to think too much on this when choosing a book, I definitely can’t tell from summaries.

  • What an interesting thing to think about! It’s definitely easier for me to determine what distinguishes a good book and a bad book for me than it is to identify what makes a book great. Like you, I want beautiful writing and something thoughtprovoking. I also had a friend push me to pick my favorite books ever recently and the ones I came up with where all ones where I could still remember strong emotions the book made me feel. Also like you, I’m not sure these criteria help me identify the books that will be the great ones. I do think I should probably give sad books more of a chance though since they are typically going to make me emotional and I think I like that in a book.

  • Hmmm, this is good food for thought… I add a lot of books to my TBR because I think I’ll like them for one reason or another (usually character or style, sometimes plot – whatever aspect intrigues me), but it seems impossible to know which ones I’ll love and which ones I won’t, even if they are very similar books. It seems to come down to something deeply intrinsic that I can’t put quite put my finger on…I need a certain something to click, and maybe one day I’ll figure out just what that something is!

  • Jeez, this is very hard to think about. I only started “reading seriously” or whatever maybe two years ago, so I feel like I don’t have enough data to figure out what I really want in a book. Sometimes I think I know, and then I get it, but then it isn’t enough. Like a lot of the time I think I just want pretty writing. But The Wolf Border gave me that and I was still mostly miserable while reading it haha. So my answer is I don’t know, but I’m glad you’re kind of figuring it out. I guess something that really matters to me is atmosphere. Not everything has to be creepy (though obviously that’s preferred), but books should have a strong feeling attached to them for me to love them. I DON’T KNOW.