What makes a compelling read?

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In the past few years, several of the books I’ve enjoyed the most have been ones that I’ve got through really quickly. Gail Carriger’s Etiquette & Espionage, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, Gideon Defoe’s The Pirates In An Adventure With Communists (more on that later in the week). Even Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay, which I’m reading at the moment, is going by quickly for five hundred pages of slowly unravelling events.

Some stories go by in a blur
Some stories go by in a blur

All these books are excellent reads in their own ways, and I saw the speed at which I got through them as a sign of their quality. But then I read this blog post by Olivia Berrier and I thought again.

The Dan Brown factor

Some time ago I read The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. And then, for reasons that escape me now, I read the sequel, Angels And Demons.

I’m sure that Dan Brown is good at something writing-wise, because those books have sold in their millions. But me, I really didn’t like them. The writing was dull and repetitive. Rather than sucking me in, as I’d expect from a popular best-seller, words and phrasing often knocked me out of my immersion in the story. Sure, the plot kept moving, but it never struck me as particularly clever or original. It just sort of happened. Worst of all, the whole work seemed to take itself very seriously, despite it’s daftness.

Yet I kept reading. I committed precious hours to those books, precious corners of my brain to memorising their flaws.

Why oh why had I kept reading? And how did I get through them so damn fast?

Speed and/or substance

I’m not saying that a well written story doesn’t help make a book compelling, or lead to you getting through it faster. But as Olivia points out in her post, speed of reading and quality of book are clearly not the same thing. You can really enjoy a book that takes forever to read. You can get through a trite, tedious thriller in hours.

It’s not just be about the books themselves. After all, different things are compelling to different readers. I have a friend who loves James Joyce’s Ulysses, but I never got more than halfway through that dense, rambling tome.

Even as individuals we aren’t constant. I found Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan slow going at first, but a change of mood got me engaged and fascinated. That fascination has carried over to my reading of Sailing to Sarantium, which I’m now tearing through in fifty and hundred page chunks.

So what makes a book a page-turner? What makes it compelling or a quick read? What connects The Da Vinci Code and The Hunger Games?

What do you think?


Picture by Mo Riza via Flickr creative commons