Okay, so, here’s a completely different way of categorizing books by how you respond to them. Again, sticking strictly to nonfiction. I thought of this different system because of a comment Sherwood Smith made in a recent book review, where she commented that there is a “thread of kindness” running through the novellas of Tales From Rugosa Coven by Sarah Avery, a comment which caught my eye because it immediately made the book sound more appealing.
So, how about these categories:
1. Books with an underlying “thread of kindness.” There is a warmth to the story, let us say; a generally positive feel to the book because characters — both primary and secondary, maybe antagonists as well as protagonists — show traits such as, in no particular order, honor, courage, kindness, loyalty, self-sacrifice, and so forth. And, of course, because the good guys win. Take, oh, The Death of the Necromancer. I think of it because Nicholas is a ruthless bad guy, except not really; Ronsarde is his antagonist, except not really; Reynard is acting the part of a wastrel but is . . . how did Ronsarde put it . . . “sound as a young horse.” Etc etc. Other than the necromancer and his people, only Rive Montesq is a real bad guy. And the bad guys lose, lose, lose.
Mind you, endings don’t have to be saccharine. Even ambiguous could work, but probably only ambiguous-in-a-good-way, so to speak.
All of the books I really connect with emotionally fall into this category.
2. Books where at least some of the characters are sympathetically drawn and at least reasonably likeable, but their efforts to save the world and/or become better people go nowhere. They flounder around — or maybe act decisively — but they don’t get an actual happy ending. If there is a really evil character, that person may wind up winning at the end of the book. If not, then the most important likable character may wind up committing suicide. The underlying message of the book is that you just can’t win against the force of human greed, stupidity, selfishness, etc. Here I’m thinking of Joe Abercrombe’s First Law trilogy and especially the related work Best Served Cold. Also of mysteries like Tana French’s In The Woods. Also of literary works like Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna. Oh, another example: Jack Chalker’s Flux and Anchor series, where the ultimate conclusion is that the best decent people can do is create a bubble universe and shut themselves away from the rest of humanity, which can then go to hell without them having to watch. I read Chalker when I was a kid, and I still remember first realizing what it looks like when the universe is set up so the good guys can’t win.
Books like these can be brilliantly written, but quality of writing doesn’t matter: I loathe them. I finished all of the above books, but these days I definitely, definitely take a more emotionally distant stance toward a book like this as it begins to show signs of going in that kind of negative direction. Then, when it concludes in some awful way, I write off all other books by those authors forever. Them and me: not sympatico. At least, not in an author/reader way, I expect they’re all great people if you know them personally.
3. Books where all the characters are horrible. What could possibly come to mind here but Gone Girl? These are not books I would finish. I guess the underlying message of such a book could be perceived as People Are Ugly and Life Is Ugly. Both Ana and Thea found Gone Girl “compulsively readable.” Not that I’ve tried the book, but I’m almost positive, based on my history as a reader, that I would find it eminently resistible.
So that’s a quite different axis for readability from the familiar/unfamiliar setting axis and the single protagonist/lots of protagonists axis. At this point I guess I could set up a three-dimensional system on which to rate books according to their personal appeal; quite possibly a rating that would work for almost no one else in the world, but hey.