If you ask me what the most important quality of a good novel is, I have to say “absorption.” At least that’s what I have taken to calling it. Literary criticism seldom theorizes it, so we don’t have a general vocabulary for it yet. But we all know it when we fall into it. It’s that can’t-put-it-down quality, that read past any reasonable bedtime compulsion, that je ne sais quoi of the books we love most.
Let me show you what I mean.* One of my most vivid memories is from second grade when I had just come back from the school library with a new book. My teacher had arranged our desks into two half circles, and I was placed near the front of the outside circle, the path to the back of the room just behind me and thirty-some children all around me. On that particular day, I went right to my seat, just as we were supposed to do, and started my book. It was about a forest fire, as I recall, maybe with a donkey in it. The details are gone, but I can still smell the trees burning and remember what it felt like to be completely gripped by this story.
As I sat in my assigned space, reading time ended, and the entire class got up and went to the back of the room for square dancing. Our teacher turned on the music and started the activity. I mean, they were stomping and sliding, whooping and do-si-doing just a few feet from my desk. Suddenly, my teacher was towering over me, wondering if I cared to join them. I returned from the forest with a jolt, embarrassed as the room exploded with laughter.
Remember what that felt like—not the humiliation, but the total absorption? I’m willing to bet most of you have a story like this, when you were so lost in a book that reality was edged out. Nancy Drew also inspired this for me—and Jo March, Trixie Belden, Up a Road Slowly, and the Black Stallion. I know many adult readers who fell so deeply into the Harry Potter series that they are still waiting for their Hogwarts letters. (They’re the ones who walk into Universal’s Wizarding World and say, “I’m home.”) I’m pretty sure that absorption is the one thing Stephenie Meyer got right in Twilight. Apparently, it was enough.
When I read Anna Karenina in college it was that forest fire all over again. I just couldn’t put it down, so I, an A student who always sat on the front row, continued to read Anna discretely, under my notebook, right through Environmental Biology—only this time I was more skilled (from years of practice) and didn’t get caught wandering so far afield from reality.
But getting lost is something avid readers aim for. We long for that forest fire. If this quality strikes a chord with you, you might try Sarah Schulman’s The Cosmopolitans or Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, my most recent forest fire books.
What books exemplify “absorption” for you? I know you’re out there, literary pyromaniacs. Talk to me about books.
* This story is taken from The Ulysses Delusion: Rethinking Standards of Literary Merit (Palgrave 2016).