I blame my father for turning me into the reader I am. Being the bibliophile and intellectual of the household, it was he who first got me interested in literature, and inevitably he was a major influence on what kind of books I like to read. I have had to find out that the literary taste I developed because of this paternal influence is, however, rather particular, and therefore one I don’t seem to share with many people. Which is why I can jump up at the mention of authors like Julian Barnes, Zadie Smith and Annie Proulx, but will sit by silently, wearing a somewhat confused smile, when my peers start raving about Game of Thrones. Mostly this difference in literary tastes originates, I think, in what you expect from literature. And one of the things which determines whether or not I will consider a book worth my while, is verisimilitude.
‘Verisimilitude’ is a very fancy word which means ‘the appearance of being true or real’. The word wiggled its way into the English language via the identical 16th century French word ‘verisimilitude’, which in turn derives from the Latin ‘verisimilitudo’, meaning ‘likeness to truth’. This is a compound noun, consisting of ‘verus’ (adjective meaning ‘true’) and ‘similis’ (adjective meaning ‘like, similar’). You will probably not encounter this word often in your daily likfe (though kudos if you do); I myself only discovered it once I enrolled at university and discovered the wonderful world of literary terms. As such, you will (sadly) probably only find it in written text, but as always with obscure words, I will make a valiant attempt to popularize it. But now back on topic.
To me, a good book has to have a perfect balance between realism and fictionality (and has to have, in other words, verisimilitude). For most people, myself included, the attraction of books lies exactly in the fact that they are different from everyday life. The book is a closed universe in which characters move according to a plot, with a buildup, a climax and a denouement. There is an order to this fictional universe which is comforting exactly because it is absent in everyday life. To quote my literary hero (brace yourselves, he’s coming along again at some point): “Books say: She did this because. Life says: She did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t.”
However, as much as this necessary divergence from Life As It Is makes books attractive, in order for me to really see a book as valuable, I have to be able to take a piece of it with me in my day-to-day life. And this is where verisimilitude comes in. Many people see books as a means to get away from the world for a couple of hours; a means of escapism. And I do too, to a certain extent. But if a book makes too much sense, is too logical, too clever, I probably won’t enjoy as much, because it differs too widely from my day-to-day experience.
Verisimilitude creates the difference between what I consider the ‘a quick read’ and ‘a good read’. I’ve read books that tug you along into a fictional world which is marvelous and wonderful and you just can’t stop reading because it’s so exciting and you have to know what happens. And at the end of it, you usually do figure out what happens. At the end of it, everything will make sense, every storyline will be neatly tied up, and every question will be answered. And you will be left a happy, fulfilled reader.
I think I experience these books just like everyone else does. I find them extremely enjoyable to read. I also usually forget about them a week after I finish them. And this is the difference between ‘enjoyable’ and ‘valuable’ literature to me. Books I consider ‘valuable’ literature are rarely page-turners. I sometimes have to push myself to get through them. But by the end I will often have learned a lot about myself, about the world, about life, love, death and all his friends. These books are usually not that thrilling, exactly because of their verisimilitude. They resemble real life, which, let’s be honest, is often boring, confusing, and meaningless. Thrilling? Hmm. Let’s save that discussion for later, shall we?
A good book has to challenge me. Has to challenge the way I look at the world, at my life, and everything revolving around me. A good book changes you. To quote my literary hero (again): “When you read a great book, you don’t escape from life, you plunge deeper into it. There may be a superficial escape—into different countries, mores, speech patterns—but what you are essentially doing is furthering your understanding of life’s subtleties, paradoxes, joys, pains and truths. Reading and life are not separate but symbiotic.” And it is exactly this symbiosis of fictionality and verisimilitude which makes a good book, in my eyes. Which is why, in my writing, I try to not let everything make sense. You don’t have to solve every mystery. You don’t have to answer every question. Good books don’t try to answer questions, but raise them. If the writer solves everything for the reader, the reader has nothing more to wonder about. As I usually have with page-turners, you can put the book aside and forget about it. Books which raise questions make you wonder. Make you think. Considering how much time I spend in my head, I rather like a book which gives me new and interesting thoughts. Things that don’t make sense. And yet, if it is well-written, in a way it will make more sense than anything ever has. This is the magic of fiction. You take two concepts which are superficially irreconcilable, but then you blend them together, and a chemical reaction takes place which leaves you with one of the most intoxicating potions the human race has ever made (not to be bombastic, or anything). Cheers.