I was fortunate to have a significant chunk of free reading time this weekend. I started out with a stack of recent children's books, and ended up finding three that caught my interest (one of which I'm still reading). I realized something through this process, something that I think has been gradually becoming more true for me over the years. I realized that whether or not a book hooks me comes primarily down to narrative voice. Plot and settling and characterization are all helpful and necessary, of course. But what hooks me (or doesn't), what keeps me reading (or not) is voice. When the narrator makes me smile, makes me flag multiple passages in the first chapter, I know that I'm in good hands. When I find myself skimming instead, I have learned to move along to the next book. Even if the topic is something that I might normally be interested in.
The voice can be humorous or profound, sarcastic or inspiring. It's not that I'm looking for one particular voice. But I'm looking for a voice that connects with me on some level.
Here are the passages that I flagged first in the three books that made the cut for me this weekend (and no, I'm not going to share the list of books that didn't). First:
"Now here she was, six weeks into the school year at Dunwiddle. It was the first day of serious rain and her feet were soaked. But what was a girl to do? Wet feet were wet feet. Nothing to be gained by moping." (Page 5 of Upside-Down Magic #3: Showing Off by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins)
Here I think what I liked was the matter-of-factness of "Nothing to be gained by moping." Second:
"I lived on a quiet, dead-end street in a town full of people who said how great it was that they didn't live in that big, smelly city of London--and who then spent most of their mornings desperately trying to get there." (Page 1 of The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson)
This one struck me as insightful. I had a feeling I would like the narrator's sense of humor. Third:
"Silence is golden and, in this case, it's useful, too. It allows you a chance to look at Billy and see what kind of a boy he is. The first thing you'll notice is that he's tall, and kind of pale-looking -- even a bit sickly, like he's been ill or something. But that's only to be expected of someone who was in a serious car accident." (Page 2 of The Most Frightening Story Ever Told by Philip Kerr)
I don't always like the device of third-party narrator talking directly to the reader, but in this instance, it worked for me. A reference later on the same page to books as "a kind of taxicab for the mind" sealed the deal.
It used to be that I would read a book because I knew that I liked the author, or because someone had recommended it to me, or because I had seen a good review. And those things will still help to get a book onto my candidate stack in the first place. But it takes more than that now for me to actually finish a book. It takes something in that voice that grabs me and makes me want to keep reading. Because I get up very every day, and books that don't hook me are books that do not keep me awake. When I'm falling asleep after a few pages, struggling to continue a book, I don't end up reading anything. Which is a tragedy. So these days, I listen to what the voice inside my head is telling me about the voice of each book, and I respond accordingly.
Side Note 1: I wonder if my current attachment to voice has to do with the fact that these days I listen to more books on audio than I read in print (though the stack this weekend was an actual print stack). There the quality of the narrator's voice also has an impact, though that's not what I'm talking about here.
Side Note 2: Of course plot also has an impact on a book's ability to keep me awake. But I have to get far enough into the book for the plot to engage me. Usually, the voice comes first.
Have any of you noticed a growing dependence on voice to get you interested in books as you get older? Or is this just me? Anyway, I thought that my book-loving friends might find the question of interest.