Everyone has their own requirements for what makes a Really Good Book (RGB). For me, the characters must be believable, interesting, and usually flawed in some way. The plot must also be believable (but not predictable) with at least one big twist that seems to come out of nowhere.
I have one more requirement, which is probably particular to my experience when I read a book. It has to do with setting.
I love starting a new book. For those first few pages, I’m still trying to get my bearings. Besides sizing up the characters and getting a feel for the pace of the book, I start to find a place for the setting.
For some unknown reason, instead of imagining a unique setting for each book, I plug in something from my childhood. If the scene takes place in a kitchen, I usually default to my kitchen at my parents’ or my grandparents’ house. If the author goes on to describe the kitchen and something doesn’t mesh with the one I’ve chosen, I quickly do some mental redecorating, but the structure stays the same.
I don’t choose the room when I start reading. It’s not something I do deliberately; it’s a reflex. This reading quirk doesn’t bother me, but I do find it puzzling. Why do I automatically call on rooms from my childhood to imagine setting? There is no connection between the story and the chosen room (for example, it’s not like I choose my grandmother’s living room for a scene from The Secret Garden because I remember watching the movie there as a child). Is there some hidden meaning–a subconscious connection, or is my brain just too lazy to make up an image from scratch?
Perhaps this habit is my way of putting myself in the character’s shoes. In a way, I guess I’m thinking: “Ok, if this story had happened to me, it probably would have happened somewhere where I’ve spent a lot of time…” I seem to be unintentionally imagining what it would be like to live the story, instead of reading it with the intended setting.
There is an exception to this rule. If the writing is strong enough, I can think up a completely original setting that has very little to do with my own life. For example, I recently finished Swamplandia! by Karen Russell and the story swept me away. I’ll admit that I did imagine the Bigtree house to be much like a family member’s apartment, but I had to make so many alterations that the final product looked nothing like it. As I read on, I began to imagine each scene vividly, like a movie playing in my mind. So, for me, this is the final test of a RGB: the book has the power to make me imagine setting independent of memory.
How do you imagine setting when you read? What are your reading quirks? Feel free to share in the comments.