Three questions to ask yourself when you finish reading a book

Three questions to ask yourself when you finish reading a book

I enjoy reading books about the craft of writing, reading a half-dozen or so in any given year. At the urging of an author friend, I recently picked up David Bayles and Ted Orland’s Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, originally published in 1985.

More philosophy than practical how-to, the book explores the obvious and more insidious ways fear gets in the way of an artist’s work—everything from hampering the artist’s ability to promote finished pieces to preventing the work from even getting started. The book is deliberately broad in scope: Bayles and Orland draw from all sorts of disciplines for their examples. We hear about painters, singers, novelists, dancers, sculptors, and more.

I listened to the audio version; I wouldn’t say the narration elevated the reading experience, but it was perfectly serviceable. Mostly I listened and nodded along, but occasionally the authors would say something that sent me rushing for my pen.

That’s exactly what happened when the authors discussed how to evaluate a work of art, no matter the discipline. I’m fascinated by the question, which has always prompted lively conversation around here. I constantly refer to this post about W. H. Auden’s five possible verdicts for an adult reader, and one of our most popular Book School sessions is called “How to Review Anything.”

Bayles and Orland shared a simple framework from Henry James. I haven’t read The Art of Fiction (yet), and wasn’t familiar with his three questions to evaluate an artist’s work, which are:

  1. What was the artist trying to achieve?
  2. Did he or she succeed?
  3. Was it worth doing?

The first questions are objective; they don’t involve personal taste at all. You don’t need to like a work to identify what the artist was trying to achieve, and if they succeeded.

Ah, but the third question: this is the one that “opens the universe,” the authors say—because it invites you to respond to the work, to assign a value to it, to weigh its worth.

On What Should I Read Next, I’m often pointing out the difference between whether a book was well-written and whether it’s to your taste. The second question is easy to answer; the first, much harder. Perhaps these three questions will give you another way to think about how to assess the quality of a book—or a painting, sculpture, or Netflix show.

How do YOU evaluate art? What questions do you ask yourself? How do you decide whether a book—or any work of art—is “good”?

P.S. Why I changed my mind about star ratings, and because sometimes a 4.75 star rating feels right.

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  1. Debbie Ball says:

    This is quite serendipitous as I just finished The Kitchen Front yesterday. JRyan accomplices all three of these tasks but most important opened my eyes to the struggles of wartime Britain with rationing which actually lasted till 1959. I came away with a story still playing out in my head

  2. Cassie says:

    Several years ago, I did a severe overall on evaluating if I like something… rather than was it well executed. Because I was having a really hard time deciding what I liked and wanted because I was using the wrong criteria for me. Did I enjoy it? For books, my clues are how fast did I read it? Was i grabbing for my phone or my kindle during breaks in the day? And in this season of life, did it make me feel good, because I’ve got enough responsibility in my life right now that I don’t need to feel responsible for the characters too.

    • KirstenNB says:

      Spot on, Cassie!
      Working from home now allows me a lot of options during lunch, do I read, watch tv, do chores, craft. A book has to be good in order for me to continue flexing my brain during my lunch hour.
      Oh, and I NEVER choose chores! 😉

  3. Liz Snell says:

    I have a choice about book worlds I inhabit. I’ve learned it’s mostly about worlds I want to be in, issues or problems I want to face, people who are courageous in some ways, history based on how people lived. When it’s all violence or hate or total despair I just don’t want to live there. So I don’t! 😊

    • Chris says:

      I’ve decided that I can deal with dark themes as long as there is a ray of hope orjoy there. That said there are times when I want something happier.

    • Gill Le Fevre says:

      100%!! If I don’t find a character that I’m cheering for and wanting to succeed, then I’m out. I need to care enough about the outcomes to keep going. I read a comment recently about giving a book 50 pages to see if it grabbed you, and that approach really resonated with me. There are so many great books out there, and if I get stuck with an unappealing book then I simply don’t read. So now I ditch the dull and move on!

  4. Vicky says:

    I particularly like Auden’s framework for deciding about the meaning (or not!) of a particular reading experience. Since the pandemic has closed down much of my social interaction, I find that I am looking for stories that don’t make me despair for humanity and don’t shake me up when I am already coming to terms with the real world…”with all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams.” So, I have been reading “happy ever after” stories and loving how I feel afterwards. I have come to understand that there is far too much judgement in the literary world–assumptions about the reader’s choices, about the writer’s thematic material. I have learned that the HEA world is full of very fine writers with wonderful story and character development skills (lots of trashy stuff, too, but you know that in the first paragraph)! The thing is to decide is what are you needing in this moment: escape, fun, titillation, simple story, education? As a teacher, I can tell you, I look for whatever will lure a young reader into the world of story…so read whatever meets your immediate need. Auden seems to have understood that in his 5 verdicts.

  5. Beth Roireau says:

    This is a very timely topic for me. I recently read His & Hers by Alice Feeney and Good Girls Lie by J.T. Ellison. These books are well written and accomplish their objective of suspense and mystery, keeping you guessing ’til the end. I’m happy I read them. But, they both have an element(s) where I found myself thinking, “I wish the author hadn’t used “that” to get the book where it needed to go”. I struggle with how to rate/review a book that is good but not to my personal taste.

  6. Janice says:

    For me the writing and story go hand in hand in evaluating a book I have read. The words must elevate off the page into something beautiful while telling a story that pushes plot and character development. All the Light You Cannot See and The Dovekeepers are examples of novels that have done this for me. AND reflecting on these books
    still gives me a sense of the beauty of the writing and story after all these years.

    Star ratings are so subjective. I use star ratings in my journal for me only.

  7. Carol Young says:

    I was just thinking about this very subject this morning! I just finished a thriller that was a page turner and well written but had a hard time giving it 5 stars because it wasn’t “deep” or didn’t involve a lot of research. But is that fair

  8. Tina says:

    For me, question 1 can be a really slippery slope. I think that, in a general sort of way, if you read Bleak House, you will know that Dickens had issues with (and was being satirical about) the legal system, and all the heartache and grief it could cause. He also was dealing with expectations, inheritances, and what happens to people when they focus solely on what money they could/should have. You can gather all of that from reading it. Where the slope comes in is when people go past what’s on the page and start attributing their goals and ideals and feelings to the author. And then, unless the author/painter/musician has come out and said, “it’s about this thing or that thing,” we can’t really know what they were trying to say. We can only know what they did say, or what we got out of it and, especially for creatives, there can be a difference between what they were meaning to portray and what people take away from it. And a well known critic will get hold of something, express their thoughts and then somehow those thoughts become gospel, and all other interpretations are wrong.
    For example, Wide Sargasso Sea is a retelling of a portion of Jane Eyre. It’s nothing more or less than another author taking an an established piece of work and deciding to write about a character who is very much in the background (important, but hidden). And yet, you have people that will tell you, if you like Rochester, that you need to read WSS so you get get a full picture of his character. That doesn’t sit well with me, because it’s not Jean Rhys’ character. It’s her interpretation of him, and her preferred way of seeing him, and it goes against the actual work by making him into a villain of sorts. Yet there are loads of people who consider this retelling to be canonical and essential for understanding Jane Eyre.

    This is a really lengthy way to say that I think we can be objective and critical about art of any kind, but when reviewing or retelling, it has to be clear that this is your interpretation of what the art is saying, as opposed to being what the artist was trying to say. That way it’s honest and objective, but still open for other ideas.

  9. Madelyn says:

    For books I would ask did I genuinely enjoy it? Did it have redemptive value either through the characters or teach me something that will stay with me? And would I read another by this author?

    • Lisa says:

      Would I read another book by this author is THE question for me! I hadn’t actually realized it, though, until I read your comment. 😊

  10. EJ says:

    Something I always ask myself when I finish a book and am determining what star rating to give it is “Would I read this again?”

  11. Liz says:

    My definitions of a good book are pretty simple…was I able to put it down easily, or did it “call” to me when I wasn’t reading it; did it make me think differently, and/or did it stir my emotions.

  12. Laja says:

    My heart breaks whenever I read a terrible review with low star ratings, even when the book downright sucked. That author wrote a book! A book that ended up in your hands and mind. That is a miracle. So, I urge everyone to write those reviews while picturing yourself reading them aloud to the author themselves and looking directly into their eyes while doing so. Still want to say those things?

    • Barbara says:

      I appreciate the sensitivity expressed here, but yes, I would say those things because the author chose to put that book out into the world. Getting reactions and responses from readers is part of the transaction when writing for an audience. It is a consequence of writing to be read. It’s a little bit like a restaurant chef sending out a meal that is not successful. Would you say something? Send it back? Sometimes those harsh reviews help me understand why a book was not satisfactory, identifying what I could not quite put my finger on as the reason. And on the flip side, there have been more than a few times I have read rave reviews, only to read the book and end up wondering what all the fuss was about. So glad this topic is being discussed today.

    • Suzanne says:

      I don’t condone unkind reviews. But low star ratings and constructively critical reviews, absolutely. Any true artist wants to grow in their craft and the only way to do that is by learning what your mistakes are. When you’re creating something, you look at it so many times that you are no longer in a position to evaluate it because your view is distorted. You’ve simply looked at it too often. Having fresh eyes on it and people saying “this was nice, but you messed up here” is crucial. It’s part of the circular relationship between author and reader.

      Also, when you put your art into the world, it’s open for critique. Abuse of free speech is sometimes an unfortunate byproduct of living in a free country. But I have friends in Russia saying their society is closing, that artists, journalists, activists, etc, are once again disappearing off the streets, no one knowing where they’ve been taken, just like in the Cold War days. We are a privileged society and a few nasty reviews are a small price to pay.

    • Sally Hepworth, who wrote The Mother-in-Law, does 1-star reviews some Fridays on her Instagram. It is hilarious in part because she looks for the joy in how much people hated her books. I just love her attitude because it’s so healthy.

  13. Chris says:

    I recently took some adult ed classes reading Latin American writers. These authors main goal isn’t entertainment. The teacher kept asking us, “why did the author use this technique or chose this situation?” It has helped me to enjoy books and works of art that I might not have understood or enjoyed before.

  14. Kristine Yahn says:

    If you are in a position to influence the choices people make about what to read, these questions make sense, as does the negative opinion about star ratings.

    If you’re just an enthusiastic reader, I don’t think they are particularly important. That’s why I often rely on star ratings far more than reading through multiple reviews.

    I have found that my personal reading at any given time has more to do with my life than with the critical reviews any book or author receives. At 73, with major depression, I’m reading historical and sometimes contemporary romance almost exclusively, and have been for at least two years. The last thing my life needs is tension, suspense, and horrible (to me) surprises. I read newspapers for that.

  15. Libby H says:

    I come from an arts background, and my husband decidedly does not. We have had several discussions along these lines, which mostly end in us both being frustrated because he can’t (and then digs in his heels and WON’T) articulate why he does or does not like something.

    One thing I have encouraged him to consider in art (specifically visual) is the idea that famous or “important” pieces that he doesn’t like are important often not for their beauty or aesthetic, but the idea that the artist was often formally trained, and then took that skill to push boundaries and create something new. So I think your question #3 is important, because we don’t always have to LIKE something for it to be worthwhile, or “good.” I find that if I can appreciate something for its contribution to society or the furthering of art, that appreciation lends a beauty to the piece, whether I consider it pleasing on an subjective level. (Also, a valuable lesson for life in general. Beauty in the rote or hardship.)

    So I suppose education plays a large role in the evaluation process and its outcome. For example, there are quite a few Pulitzer books that I find unreadable and would never pick up for pleasure reading, but having an understanding of literary history and an author’s background can help me understand why it received the prize.

    The worthwhileness question has a few levels as well. Was it worthwhile for me to view/read/experience is a totally different question than whether it was worthwhile for the creator to go through the creative process. And there are a whole bunch more questions that go along with that topic, but I need to stop revisiting my college classes and get back to the work I should be doing!

    Thanks Anne for getting my brain going this morning!

  16. Kara says:

    One question I always consider after reading a book is “Did I enjoy it while I was in the midst of reading it?” A book or any piece of art may leave something to be desired in the end, but if I can honestly say that I was having fun or was fully engaged while in the process of reading it, that’s a very good sign.

    Also, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron is another fascinating book about creativity and the creative process whether you’re a writer, painter, or just want to feel more confident in exploring your passions.

  17. Michelle says:

    Another question I like to ask is “Did I learn something new about God, the world, and/or myself? I also agree with the posters who said that “comfort reads” have been especially important this past year, so I might also ask, “Did this book help me to feel hopeful?”

  18. Allison says:

    I post all my book reviews on Goodreads. I have two extra shelves: “All-Time Favorites” and, more recently, “Changed My Life.” For a book to make it to either of these shelves, it has to be more than 5 stars (and I know Ann has commented about the whole star rating thing anyway!).
    I have read many books that I would probably say have met the goals of being well-written, that the author achieved his/her goal and yes — at least for that point in my life, I could say it was worth it.

    But for me, there is more: an “All-Time Favorite” book is one I won’t forget, either because of the storyline itself, or because of how it made me feel (Jan Karon’s book “At Home in Mitford” and Jacqueline Winspear’s “Masie Dobbs” are on this shelf, but for separate reasons).
    However, I created the “Changed My Life” shelf for that very reason: some books come along that quite literally do that! My life is not the same because I read that particular book: Kristen Hannah’s “The Nightingale,” Eric Metaxas “Bonhoeffer,” and only a few others are on this shelf.

    I know some people save their 5-stars for such books, but I am more free with mine. Obviously, any review of art is ultimately going to be subjective. These conversations are helpful so we can all be better at our own reviews!

  19. Adrienne says:

    My reading goals may be superficial, but I read because I like stories, and characters, and learning about things and events. For me, reading a novel is purely a form of entertainment and I don’t really wrestle with the deeper questions of the author’s motivation and goals, and whether or not they were achieved. I do like to read books that make me think and expose me to completely different people, cultures, ideas, and historical events, but first and foremost, I like a good story, well told. It’s a different situation for non-fiction reads where I am deliberately seeking to learn something rather than looking for entertainment. My two cents….

  20. Colleen says:

    1. Did I enjoy the book?
    2. Did I learn anything new?
    3. Did I mark or write down any quotes or lines that I felt especially relevant to me?

    I really loved sermon from Anne’s minister (in the epilogue?) of Don’t Overthink It.

    I loved Nicola Yoon’s new book Instructions for Dancing, as there were several that stuck with me; even though at 50+, I’m sure I’m not her target audience. Consider saying “Yes” to as many positive opportunities that present themselves to you. And also at the end Ms. Yoon provides a shout out to hospital workers; very touching.

  21. Katherine Hardee says:

    Books that I consider “good” meet many of the above criteria AND I find myself wanting to share these books! I can’t stop talking about them with friends and family and anyone who will listen and I always want to pass them on to someone who I think will love!

  22. Sherry says:

    One thing that makes a book a ‘winner’ in my view, is when I wish the book would never end. I can tell that is happening in my mind because I begin to read slower and slower as I approach the final pages! Also, I agree about wanting to take notes: that signals it is really a good book for me. And then, when I feel I must have my own copy, and buy it, I know I’m totally hooked on that book. I read more non-fiction than fiction. Recent books I enjoyed: The Sound of A Snail Eating; The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative; Bleak House (yes, this one is fiction—glad to see it mentioned today); Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit; Beyond the Trees: A Journey Alone Across Canada’s Arctic by Adam Shoalts; and A Cloud a Day: 365 Skies from the Cloud Appreciation Society (photos every page).

    I would be interested in what the professional librarian had on her mind. I was a Middle School librarian for 14 years. It made me realize that we are interested in different kinds of books at different stages of our lives.

    A book by Gabriel Zaid, So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance, gives an interesting slant on how many people read any one book, and how we find books that we like among all those being published. Sometimes a find is serendipity!

  23. Art and Fear is an absolute favorite. I’ve always liked the idea of examining what an artist was trying to achieve. We all come to art with expectations, ones that sometimes aren’t met because we expected things to go in a different direction or wouldn’t have focused on this or that if we were the ones creating. But to bring it back to the artist is a very generous thing. What were they exploring? What were they trying to uncover and say and discover? That sets our personal preferences aside and lets us see beyond ourselves. I think it’s also important to remember there’s no such thing as a perfect piece of art. This is a generous way of looking at creative endeavors, too.

  24. Debra Golding says:

    For me, it really depends on the book on how I rate/review it. For the most part, I want to have some sort of connection with the book. Does it draw me into the story or the characters? Is there a message that helps me to grow? I will say that I have a different criteria for different books. For instance, when I read Christmas books, which are usually sappy, I will rate it well if it made me feel good. Whereas, if I read a similar type book at another time of the year, I may gag on it. LOL I have given good ratings for books that I didn’t particularly like, but the book was well written. On the flip side, I have given good ratings for books that aren’t well written, but had a message that really resonated with me. And I’m learning to put books down halfway through if it’s not really working for me.
    I guess I look at novels differently than other art forms. In high school, I took a class that taught us how to critique different art forms, but I don’t do that with novels.

  25. Sami says:

    I agree with the question did the art achieve its purpose. It may not be my cup of tea, but if it achieved its purpose then it’s successful to me. Personally, I ask myself, did this change me? Could I have lived without reading this? What value did this add to my life? Can this benefit anyone else? Was this worth my time? I value art in all its mediums and as an artist, I recognize that the purpose of the piece matters.

  26. Alison P. says:

    I just finished reading George Saunders’ new book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, which was a beautiful reflection on what makes a great story, how we decide that personally, how a writer moves his or her stories that direction, and so much of Saunders’ thesis was centered on delight — did the writer find delight in the creation of his/her story? does the reader find delight in the experience of reading the text? Saunders took seven stories of Chekhov, Turgenev, Gogol and Tolstoy and considers them closely in ways that were truly delightful, and I know that I have internalized much of his approach and will bring it to future reading. I highly recommend this book and the continuing conversation it centers when Saunders encourages us to ask if we have found moments of joy, if the story mattered to us.

  27. Suzy says:

    I think a star rating that’s supposed to encompass everything leads to so much inconsistency! We need something like a multi point questionnaire: see eBay for feedback, or trip advisor’s ratings for examples.
    Was it well-written?
    Is it a good story arc?
    Did I really enjoy reading it?
    Was the ending satisfying?
    If it matters, did I care about the characters?
    Would I recommend it?

  28. Tim Scott says:

    1. What was the artist trying to achieve? Can we know authorial intent — even if the author tells us?
    2. Did he or she succeed? How do you measure this? Success according to whom? what are the standards?
    3. Was it worth doing? In others who ask this same question, it usually relates to a moral force in the fiction (cf. John Gardner)
    Unless I am mistaken and passing over these questions in James’ speech, the locus classicus (or at least earlier phrasing) it Coleridge – perhaps in Aids to Reflection

  29. Tim Scott says:

    1. What was the artist trying to achieve? Can we know authorial intent — even if the author tells us?
    2. Did he or she succeed? How do you measure this? Success according to whom? what are the standards?
    3. Was it worth doing? In others who ask this same question, it usually relates to a moral force in the fiction (cf. John Gardner)
    Unless I am mistaken and missed these questions in James’ speech, the locus classicus (or at least earlier phrasing) is Coleridge – perhaps in Aids to Reflection

  30. Janice Spence says:

    Some of the questions I consider are:
    1. Did I learn something?
    2. Would I read it again?
    3. How good is the writing?
    4. Would I suggest it to one of my book groups? (One group is more
    interested in quality of writing, one is more focused on plot)

  31. Sheryl A Esau says:

    I think I like these questions more regarding books than art. As a part-time artist, I’m not sure these questions pertain to my art at all. And with art – I think it’s all worth doing whether it’s “successful” or not. My friends and I often talk about that it’s at least 50% about the process of making the art and the other 50% about the outcome.

  32. Sheryl A Esau says:

    These may be more pertinent book questions for me:
    Did I enjoy the book or glad I read it?
    Did I learn something?
    Did I connect with the characters? (Doesn’t have to be a “good” connection for me)
    Would I recommend the book to a friend?
    Do I continue to think about the story after I’ve finished the book?

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