We’ve all been there: bleary-eyed, sipping a cup of coffee with a story stuck in your head like a song, an after-effect of having spent the greater part of the night reading a book. It’s not your fault, of course. Some books refuse to be put down. It does make me wonder, though: what makes a book absorbing?
There have been multiple instances when I have been held hostage by the words on a page. At 15, when I whiled away an entire day on the couch with Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, or at 20 in a college dorm, staying up into the early morning hours because I wanted to know how Persuasion ended. Growing up, I was a picky reader, and the only books that made it through to me were the ones that pulled me in often from the very first page (and the ones with magic).
Some books are built to hook the reader in. We have an entire genre dedicated to books that have you at the edge of your seat, biting nails in suspense. That being said, not all mystery and suspense books work on the same principle. Riley Sager’s Final Girls, for example, was a thriller in the strains of old-school slasher movies. Octavia Butler’s dark time-travel story Kindred had hooked because I was worried about the main character.
In fact, books don’t even need to have a mystery to be absorbing. As someone who enjoys a romance done well, I couldn’t stop reading Casey McQuiston’s iconic Red, White and Royal Blue or Keeping You a Secret by Julie Anne Peters. Out of all the different books I’ve shelved on Goodreads, the ones I’ve marked as “absorbing” defy genres. I was as hooked in by Ocean Vuong’s poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds as with Susan Orlean’s investigation on the Los Angeles Public Library fire in The Library Book.
Sometimes the very writing style an author uses is enough to draw me like moth to flame. Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake is written in beautiful, emotive language, but Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold is no less impactful for its simple prose.
I have found books absorbing for several reasons: because they comforted me or because the author created a fascinating and magical new universe. P.G. Wodehouse’s Carry On, Jeeves made me laugh through a lunch break, and Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson made me long for a pen pal to share my innermost thoughts with. The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden was my escape during spring break my third year. Sometimes I fall in love with the general mood a book creates. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street makes me want to curl up with a cup of tea on a rainy day, while Kafka on the Shore has me daydreaming of distant mountains and nature retreats.
What do we really mean when we say a book was absorbing? For me, it not only means that I liked a book so much that I didn’t want to stop reading it but also that I found something. A hopeful story, a character I connected to, a narrative voice that lulled me into another time, I found something in a book that made me want to spend all my time with it, something that drew my mind to it time and again.
It makes perfect sense that books that are absorbing don’t follow a pattern or formula. People find books absorbing for many varied reasons. It’s like asking someone what they like in a book. There are so many answers: a gripping plot, flowery prose, themes of friendship or family, and so on. There are books that lack all of the aforementioned traits but are still cherished by readers. We have a spectrum of reasons, and it’s different every time around.
I have a friend who adores psychological thrillers, and another who can never get into any book with a fantasy or magical realism element. In my teenage years, if a book didn’t have a dark, brooding vampire love interest, I wasn’t interested. There are books that I’ve read before that are still absorbing to me today, even though the plot twists no longer surprise me, and I know the story like the back of my hand.
What makes a book absorbing? You tell me.