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O'TOOLE: A great book lingers with me long after reading it

• Sep 4, 2018 at 4:00 PM

What makes a great read?

Is it a suspenseful mystery full of plot twists and red herrings? A romance full of passion and intrigue?

Each person may have unique taste when it comes to favorite authors or genres, but the feeling of having read a favorite book is much the same for us all.

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading,” said William Styron, author of several books, including the novel “Sophie’s Choice” and the depression memoir “Darkness Visible.”

A great book absorbs me so completely that the world outside its pages cease to exist. I forget about bills, laundry, dishes and all the nagging items on my to-do list. I don’t worry about when I’ll squeeze in the time to take my car to the shop or get my straggly mop of hair cut.

“There comes a time when you have to choose between turning the page and closing the book,” says Josh Jameson, author of the novel “A Patriot’s Plot.” That’s where I have trouble. The better the book, the harder it is to close and return to the “real” world.

I feel that a great book is one that lingers with me long after I’ve read it. I think about it for days or weeks after I’ve finished it. I recommend to friends, family and strangers again and again. I’ll definitely read more than once.

You may have heard about the “The Great American Read.” It’s an eight-part series on PBS that features authors, celebrities, prominent Americans and ordinary readers talking about the 100 books on the Great Read list.

The titles on the list are all novels, chosen by a national survey. While I applaud the purpose of the program, which is to encourage people to come together to read and discuss books, I have a little trouble with the list.

The fact that there are only novels on the list implies that only novels can be great reads. I may be a little biased because I studied nonfiction writing in college for two years, but I get itchy when people suggest that nonfiction is not creative or imaginative. Just because an author is writing facts doesn’t mean she has no imagination. In fact, a nonfiction author may need more imagination than a fiction writer.

The truth is stranger than fiction, right? But nonfiction has to be believable. The writer has to work very, very hard to make her true story ring true, no matter how bizarre it is.

Just a few nonfiction titles I would nominate for the list are as follows:

“Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year” by Anne Lamott. I gave this book as a baby shower gift. How I wish someone had done the same for me 17 years ago when I was pregnant with my first child. Lamott tells it like it is when it comes to motherhood, hemorrhoids and all. She is funny and sad and wise. Most of all, she reminds us all that we can survive this journey called parenthood.

“The Glass Castle” by Jeanette Walls. This beautifully written memoir describes the author’s childhood spent in poverty. Her parents are too dysfunctional to properly care for her and her siblings, so they must raise themselves. It makes me appreciate my parents more than ever for providing me a safe, loving, carefree childhood.

“The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America” by Bill Bryson. Bryson is one of the funniest writers I’ve ever read. All of his books are a treat to read, but I love this one in particular because it makes me want to jump in my car and take a tour of small-town America myself. I learned so much about American history, geography and society. And I laughed a lot.

I can’t leave Joan Didion off the list. Picking just one of her essay collections is like picking my favorite finger. It’s a tie between “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “The Year of Magical Thinking.” The theme of “Slouching” is California, with essay titles such as “John Wayne: A Love Song,” “Marrying Absurd” and “I Can’t Get That Monster out of My Mind.” “The Year of Magical Thinking” is a memoir of the year following the death of Didion’s husband.

I’m running out of space and time, and there are so many more books I could suggest for this list: “Jesus Land” by Julia Scheeres, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot, “Five Days at Memorial” by Sheri Fink.

I wish short stories were represented on the list. There are too many wonderful collections to list, but “After Rain” by William Trevor is one of my favorites.

How on Earth did James Patterson, Tom Clancy and “Shades of Grey” make the list when “Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini and “Bel Canto” by Ann Patchett didn’t make the cut?

What book would you add to the list?

Catch “The Great American Read” on PBS beginning Sept. 11.

— By Kelly O’Toole, Tribune community columnist

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