What Makes a Book Timeless?

 

How do some books stay on the bestseller lists month after month and sometimes, year after year? Until recently, I thought a great deal of luck went into their success. I still believe that some luck goes into it, but in a short examination of titles that linger or resurface on the lists I noticed a trend.

Layers.

This may not come as any big surprise to you, but from a craft perspective it felt like a revelation to me. Allow me to explain.

On the surface, a book needs to have an engaging  plot and interesting premise. These elements alone can satisfy readers, and some readers even seek books that only appeal to this level. I think of this as the sensory or physical level. I’ve heard some refer to books like this as dessert: quick, tasty, but unable to fulfill long term health requirements.

The next layer is about the emotional journey or arc of the characters. When characters are flawed, complex, and sympathetic the reader enters into a deeper level of intimacy with the text because he cares. Strong characters activate the emotions of the reader, vesting him in the story. Books that delve deeply into this level while satisfying the sensory level tend to inspire a lot of recommendation, buzz, and may even make them worthy of book club discussion.

There is one more layer, however, that I think makes the difference that keeps books on the bestseller lists for the long term: the thematic layer. When an author explores themes that challenge the reader, when she uses allegory or symbol, when she might even change the world view of the reader, the book enters the realm of the timeless. These are the books that are read over and over again, that are given as gifts or sit on end tables in guest rooms, that are recommended widely and read by children and grandchildren with the same energy and enthusiasm as their elders.

I believe that this comprehensive symbiosis of elements that satisfy the reader at the sensory, emotional, and intellectual levels keeps books on the bestseller lists because it keeps books in the hearts and minds of those who read them.  It is a tall order, but one that I suspect almost all writers aim for.

What books have you read that satisfy these layers? What books have not only kept you turning pages, but have also nourished you at a deeper level?

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13 thoughts on “What Makes a Book Timeless?

  1. This makes so much sense. I recently wrote a post advocating revising in waves, and looking to solve different problems with each round. I hadn’t thought about it from the reader’s perspective, but those layers of complexity definitely make the difference between an OK book and one that’s beautiful and re-readable.

    I’ve read a few amazing books lately that nourished me on several levels. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley and Signal & Noise by John Griesemer are two that come to mind immediately, and both are on my re-read list due to how wonderfully complex and fulfilling they were.

  2. K. says:

    A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving.

  3. erikarobuck says:

    Thanks so much for these recommendations and for stopping by the blog!

  4. Erika, Excellent thoughts. I agree on each level and love the way you’ve put a complex topic into words. Some books I instantly think of that qualify: Shadow of the Wind, The Shell Seekers, The Art of Racing in the Rain… And classics, of course, but I simply love Jane Eyre on every level (brilliant, I think), Tom Sawyer & Huck Finn, Gone with the Wind, The Great Gatsby… Too many to choose. So many multi-layered and resonant books. Thanks! -JK

  5. Eileen Cortese says:

    Love your blog, Erika. Great way to think about books and what they mean to me. I love my desserts big time, but often long for a hearty meal as well. Two books that come back to me more than a decade after reading them: The Poisonwood Bible and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Books that I think will come back to me more than a decade from now: The Help, Henrietta Lacks, and Still Alice.

  6. What great insight, Erika. These elements – sensory, emotional, and intellectual components – are what I hope to find in every book I read. How astute of you to recognize the thematic layer. I love those lightbulb moments when, as a reader, I see the symbolism or the theme woven so effortlessly into an emotional narrative. Books that have given me all of those things: ROOM, MIDDLESEX, THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE and I am currently reading (and in LOVE) with THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL GIRL. I suspect it will be one of “those” books as well.

    BTW – in real life, I would eat dessert for every single meal, if it were sustainable. BUT for my reading preferences, I’m all about the hearty, nutritious meal. Every single time. LOVED this post.

  7. Loved your breakdown of the patterns that make a book timeless. I loved it so much, in fact, I might just print it out and keep it with me always. Thanks, Erika. By the way, I am a huge fan of the layering in ‘I Capture the Castle’ by Dodie Smith.

  8. scott hunter says:

    Hi! Have you read ‘How to write a bestseller’ by Celia Brayfield – it’s superb and covers many of the concepts you mention in this post. Recommended!

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