I read a lot of books. You probably do too. That's why we meet in this space on a weekly basis. When we emerge from our solitary bubbles, we like to engage in a little fellowship with our fellow travelers. I keep that in mind when I consider every column, that I'm not here to preach, so much as to start a conversation.
But while I read a lot of books and enjoy most of them (at least the ones I finish), it's only a couple of times a year where I finish a book and my first reaction is "You have to read this!"
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This happened to me recently with "The Dinner" by Herman Koch. It has been described as the "European 'Gone Girl,'" probably because it has elements of suspense and a narrator who is reliable about some things but not others. I actually don't find the books all that similar. What I think drives the comparison is the feeling the reader gets at the end, which is, "I need someone else to read this so we can talk about how awesome and messed up it is."
That feeling has me trumpeting the book far and wide to my book-reading friends. I don't really care if they're going to like it or not. I just need someone to talk about it with. I don't belong to a book club, but I'm willing to join one as long as we talk about "The Dinner."
And drink wine.
The book isn't a towering artistic achievement. It's actually a fairly standard, but very well-executed, suspense novel. It is skillful more than artful. Reading "The Dinner" hasn't changed my world view the way something like Evan Connell's "Mrs. Bridge" did when I first read it, and I suddenly understood more about life and living.
It's just that the book got its hooks in me and won't let go.
My reaction to "The Dinner" got me wondering why it is relatively rare for a book to go "viral." We live in a culture where other media and ideas can be seemingly everywhere in an instant. How else would I be so well acquainted with the Harlem Shake or goats screaming like humans?
But books seem more resistant to this phenomenon. Publishers are forever casting about for ways to stoke "word of mouth," but there doesn't seem to be an actual formula for achieving this. We seem to have no more than a small handful of slots for viral books every year.
Some books defy the odds, and I'd love to know why, but if you can find a pattern in "Fifty Shades of Grey," "The Help," "Twilight," "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," "The Lovely Bones," "The Bridges of Madison County," and yes, "Gone Girl," you're a more astute thinker than I.
Quality certainly isn't the deciding factor. (I'm looking at you, "Fifty Shades.") Neither is subject matter. I suppose most of them have action-filled plots, except not really.
Maybe the reason so few books go viral is because when a book comes on the scene that invokes the "you have to read this!" response, it isn't enough to just read it, but we do indeed need to discuss it afterward. I can watch the latest adorable video of a baby wiggling in his car seat for 45 seconds, smile, and move on with my life.
Books don't work that way. I'm not done with "The Dinner" until we've had a chance to figure it out together, collectively.
Get reading. I'm waiting, impatiently.
Biblioracle John Warner is the author of "Funny Man." Follow him on Twitter @Biblioracle.
The Biblioracle offers his recommendations
1. "Dear Life" by Alice Munro
2. "The Round House" by Louise Erdrich
3. "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" by Ben Fountain
4. "The Third Angel" by Alice Hoffman
5. "People of the Book" by Geraldine Brooks
— Monica M., Schaumburg
Monica likes solid characters, stories with scope, and appears to gravitate toward elegant but unadorned prose. Jean Thompson's "The Year We Left Home" should do the trick.
1. "1Q84" by Haruki Murakami
2. "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck
3. "Labyrinths" by Jorge Luis Borges
4. "The Age of Innocence" by Edith Wharton
5. "Arrow of God" by Chinua Achebe
— Liz M., Brooklyn, N.Y.
"1Q84" and "Labyrinths" demonstrate that Elizabeth doesn't mind going down a little "weirder" path. So, I'm thinking Italo Calvino but having a hard time choosing which book. I've flipped a three-sided coin (this would be possible in a Calvino story), and I'm going with "The Baron in the Trees."
1. "Thrall" by Natasha Trethewey
2. "Death of a Ventriloquist" by Gibson Fay-LeBlanc
3. "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" by Helen Simonson
4. "Rainwater" by Sandra Brown
5. "State of Wonder" by Ann Patchett
— Mary R., Chicago
There are two collections of poetry on this list, which makes me feel like I have a lot of latitude for some reason. The thing is that, sometimes, too much choice can be paralyzing. As a demonstration of how personal responses to books can be, I'm going to recommend a title that I didn't care for that much, but I bet will be something Mary enjoys quite a bit, "The Tiger's Wife," by Téa Obreht.
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