Should a good book teach or entertain you?


Nathaniel Philbrick




It’s hard to answer the question the way I phrased it, isn’t it?

I think it is a tough question because most readers want a good book to teach and entertain them.

It really doesn’t matter if the book is fiction or non-fiction either.

Non-fiction readers want to learn something, but they want the information presented in a style that isn’t boring, an accessible format that holds their interest.  The best example of that approach that I know are the great narrative non-fiction works of Nathaniel Philbrick.

If you haven’t read his works like In the Heart of the Sea, the true account of the historical events that underpinned Moby Dick, then you are  missing a real treat.  Philbrick possesses a gift that allows him to chronicle historical events in such as way as to captivate readers.

On the other hand, fiction readers may want first a book that entertains them. But I believe they also hope to come away from a novel with new insight into what makes people tick.

Think for a minute about your favorite novel.

I’ll bet that it holds the top spot on your list because it showed you something about life, explored a facet of existence and shed new light on it.

This makes the craft of writing a really intricate and complex thing.

The author can’t just sit down and say, “I think I will tell people something about human relationships.”  Rather, he has to weave a story out of whole cloth, make it entertaining and provide insight into the human drama, all at the same time.  He can’t be preachy about it.  That will turn off his readers.  He can’t become a strict school master who says, “Listen now, kids.  This stuff is important.”

The writer must spin yarns, create parables, invoke universal human themes.

With the compression of fiction that comes with the new digital age, the writer faces another challenge.  He has to get into the story in a hurry, develop it fully and get out in a hurry. As Syd Field says about screenwriting, the author must “come late and leave early.”  I take this to mean that any good book begins in the middle of the story and quits before everything that could be said has been said.

Today’s writer can easily over stay his welcome.

How about you?  Do you read primarily for entertainment?  What lessons do you want to learn when you read?

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