What even is an “important book”?

thoughts orangutan

A while back I was watching a great video by Alexa Donne on how you don’t need to write an important book- which I highly recommend checking out if you need a pep talk. But it made me think: what even is an important book?

At the risk of rehashing a lot of the discussion there, I’d agree that it’s often used in marketing for issues books. And, I’d also go as far as to say, much like the literary fiction label, it’s also a way of slapping a “this is worthy” tag on a book.

My first order of contention with the very idea of an “important book” is how much genre snobbery comes into play here. Because generally speaking, it’s going to be mostly contemporary (and very occasionally historical fiction) that gets this moniker. We might even see a sci fi getting talked about this way… buuut only if it’s dystopia. And my beloved fantasy? Forget about it. Doesn’t matter if it shines a light on the true horror of war or explores deep psychological themes- it’s just never going to be talked about in the same way.

More concerning to me is how this is often framed. As Donne said “what’s important for one person might not be important for another”. And this couldn’t be more true. We all know that books are such a personal experience: a book that touches us and proves important could really fit into any category. Regardless of whether a book covers an important issue, it can become important in someone’s life. On the flipside, a book that covers topical issues can feel irrelevant or be something an individual doesn’t connect with. Claiming a book has “importance” in such a context seems a little meaningless, don’t you think?

However, I also think this goes deeper and touches on a more significant issue. In the vast majority of cases, I see books and stories that are deemed “important” are on the same narrow range of topics. For instance, I have read countless literary books about the struggles of a working or middle class person to fit in with the upper class… which, surprisingly, isn’t super relatable for most working or middle class people, despite how often it’s portrayed in stories 😉 Not that there is a deliberate conspiracy going on- just that, as carefully curated as a list may be, it will always be subject to human decision making and a natural tendency to trend-chase. The problem for me isn’t just that these books are samey or that the topic is “unrelatable” (as I’ve mentioned previously, that doesn’t necessarily matter), it’s that it leaves so much space for *other* important topics that never get discussed. Especially injustices that that may seem hard to package in a palatable way or are too sensitive to be touched. And this is not to say there should be less of a certain kind of story, just that sometimes I think the focus of what is “important” could be broadened a little.

whole world in my hands

And, perhaps most controversially, I’d also say that being “important” or someone’s “magnum opus” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. There’s still that pesky matter of taste to contend with; there’s the possibility it was published to chase a trend. And, worst of all, there’s the potential for it to be tryhard and cringy and moralising… which can all be painful to read! I guess the only positive here is that calling a book “important” doesn’t give you any real hint as to its quality.

So, all in all, I’m not sure how helpful I find the term… even if I’ve used it myself in an offhand way 😉 Obviously, it’d be the pot calling the kettle black if I critiqued every usage- nonetheless I’m finding myself more sceptical by the day about whether any books are more important than others.

What do you think? Do you find the term “important book” useful? If so, why? I want to hear what you think in the comments!

30 thoughts on “What even is an “important book”?

  1. Maybe a bit self absorbed but I categorize and important book as when I see it and read the blurb/fall in love with the cover and immediately classify as important (to me!)

    But reading this made me realise that I may be a bit shallow and need to broaden my thinking!!!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Nah. That sounds like a very pragmatic system. In essence, you’re saying that books are important if they speak to you in some way 🙂

      Besides. Pretty covers are pretty.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Well, for so long important books has meant books by white heterosexual males, perhaps the phrase has that connotation to me. The 100 “great books of literature” are an example. I’d like important to mean those that open our hearts and make us more human. Let’s rewrite what books are significant.

    Like

  3. I feel like no fantasy books are classified as important, yet so many are! I mean come on, the fantasies inspired by other cultures and own voices help some be seen and others learn to see. There are so many fantasies that deal with class struggles and xenophobia and even slavery. The fantasy genre tends to deal with human issues in a different sense. There are many times where I can relate a fantasy to historical events or it can just help me understand other cultures. YA fantasy has gotten so diverse and the cheerleaders for own voices have changed the genre. If that’s not important idk what is.

    Theres so much book snobbery out there, but that doesnt mean what your reading doesnt have value. And by the way–it doesnt have to!! My mom once criticized me for reading YA. She said something along the lines of “you’re an adult, why do you read YA books.” Like they didnt have huge stories to tell because they were about teenagers. Wow okay I guess I had to rant as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree with you when you said mostly Literary Fictions and Contemporaries would come under this title but again as you said it can be different for everybody. A book one can relate to might be important for them but not to others. There can’t be any definition or comparison.

    Like

  5. I know, when I read a review, and the person starts with the phrase, “this is an important book,” I struggle with them telling me it’s important. As you said, books are a personal experience, and what’s important to each of us is unique to our own history. I do appreciate, that a book can be important to that person, though, even if it’s not important for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. When I see a review say “this is an important book” I always get a school vibe, like I have to read this to pass some literary competency test. It puts me off. I’d feel like I’d have to concentrate whilst reading it to make sure I’m learn the “big important thing” it’s saying.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I think the idea behind “important books” is that those books have messages that transcend time. They have a message that resonates with us on some level no matter what generation we are from.

    And I agree with fakeflamenco here – “important books” usually is associated with white heterosexual males. And I’d like to believe that the industry is trying to expand its catalog to include more diverse voices.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Nice post! Your points about marketing are spot-on! Heartily agree!

    I think the larger issue at play here is what we mean by “important” — when it comes to books or otherwise. I just searched the term, and have three really different definitions:

    1) of great significance or value; likely to have a profound effect on success, survival, or well-being

    2) having high rank or status

    3) significantly original and influential

    … all of which we can apply to books. And all of which could be contextualized to different spheres … the books/literary arts, different social domains (education, politics, work, etc.), and to the individual.

    At work, I certainly use books that fulfill definitions 1, 2, and 3. References, essays, theories. They’re the foundation of my work. I might not *like* them, — in the way I like going on vacation or eating pizza — but they’re nonetheless important.

    As an individual, I recognize the value of different books — like the Iliad and 1984 — in shaping social discourse. I’ll even admit to these books influencing me in some way — to a greater or lesser extent. So, yes — in a way, these books are also important to me. (Even though I really disliked reading 1984.)

    … but, there’s also definition 1’s iunclusion of “well-being”. Important books are ones that improve my well-being — books that make me *feel good*. Essentially, your point about books be a person experience / what is important to me might not be important to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Yeah I do broadly think that when it’s used in publishing, it’s basically just marketing

      I definitely think those definitions could apply to all kinds of books! (And tbh not just the ones that get the label).

      And I agree with that as well! We don’t have to like or enjoy a book to find it important- it could just be really relevant to our work and informative

      And yeah I agree there’s different types of important. I definitely agree that there are books that are important to the discourse (and that there are classics we may not like or enjoy but still have importance). And agree with you there!

      Thanks for the fantastic comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I definitely think “important” can be subjective. On a personal level, I would think of a book that makes me think about the world differently–but what speaks to me won’t necessarily speak to other people. Like, my friend said his aunt said Atlas Shrugged was amazing and “life changing.” I’d probably end up DNF’ing the thing if I tried, based on my limited experience with Rand’s other work.

    Like

  10. “An important book” shouts to buy and read it, or at least, buy it. It’s another tool to get readers to pay attention. It’s a fuzzy description, and it might be used to identify a book that doesn’t fall in the popular genres. I rely on reviews to pique my attention and then try to find a way to read the first 5 – 10 pages. If that draws me in, I’ll buy the book. Some reviewers need to expand their vocabulary.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Such an interesting post!! The first thought that comes to my mind when I hear someone describe a book as “important” is that it discusses an issue or topic that is important to that reader… so I guess I just always take it into consideration in that context, with a grain of salt?

    Like

  12. I always considered the label “important” attached to any book to be fully and completely subjective. I didn’t even realize it may be used any other way 😉 “Important” means “significant,” and it is us who assign significance to things.

    Like

  13. I sometimes find myself calling a book important when I can’t say I loved it but am still glad I read it because it taught me about an overlooked event in history or a different point of view.
    But important to who is def an issue. My school didn’t really bother with that. The only classic we covered in English class was A christmas carol, and apart from that we could read whatever we wanted. They were just happy we read..They were all given points for impressiveness and you had to get 30 points in total… so I ended up with Harry Potter, Twilight, Lord of the Rings (worth 15 points by itself) Dan Brown and Pratchett. For German just the same, Das Parfum was just as valid as yet another book about the war. For Dutch we had to read at least 1 book by one of our greats, and something from a certain time period, and again the rest was up to us. There not being any decent Dutch fantasy hindered my enjoyment of this reading somewhat, but I did read some good scifi and mysteries. They just wanted us to read, because that in itself was important and almost any book can show and teach us something.

    Like

  14. Oh, no, not at all for me — when I see books labeled as “important” or “literary fiction”, in general I start to feel like it’s not going to be a book for me. Especially when a book gets marketed as “Important” — feels like they’re trying too hard. I feel differently about a reviewer saying that the book is important or important to them, because that’s more of a personal statement rather than a publisher or media declaring that a particular book is essential (and implying that if you don’t like that particular book or genre, then the fault is yours). There are books on my shelves and in my reading past that I would absolutely describe as important –but that means they were important to me, not necessarily that they would have that impact on all people.

    Like

  15. It’s such a subjective term that it seems silly to apply it willy nilly to whatever books mostly white cis people find “important”. Because, honestly, that’s usually who’s calling a book important. And it feels like cheating a bit because sure, a lot of books are important, but the actual question is WHY they’re important. Obviously no one’s going to go around adding blurbs to books with “important because xyz”, but that “important” part isn’t actually the important part, you know?

    You know when you type/say a word enough times, and it starts to not look/sound like a word anymore? If you use the word important to describe books a lot, eventually the word important just becomes another word describing the book and loses its meaning. So yeah, I don’t find it all that helpful either anymore. I know which books are important to me, and why they’re important, but it feels kind of pointless to shout at other people about those reasons since it’s really all just up to taste.

    Like

  16. Ooh what a wonderful post! I like what you said about the idea that what’s important for one person might not be important for another – even though I think we should all strive to read books from perspectives outside our experience, just because a book is important to one person or demographic doesn’t mean it will have the same impact for every reader. I read a lot of books that have a personal impact to me as a queer reader, but I know that they probably won’t have the same importance when I recommend them to my straight friends and family. And that’s okay!

    And I DEFINITELY think there is genre snobbery around this idea. When was the last time you heard a SFF or romance book labeled as “important”?

    Like

  17. This may sound petty, but this is the honest truth: Calling a book “important” almost guarantees I won’t read it. It normally means it’s sanctimonious and the same, safe opinion that other countless books have already espoused. I don’t read books because they are important. I read them because they are an enjoyable diversion from the doldrums of life.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Ugh, what is it about literary fiction and writing about New Yorkers trying to be upper-class New Yorkers? If I read another one I might explode.

    I was thinking that when I see books called “important” it’s usually because it has either to do with a) race b) LGBTQ or c) mental illness. And I do think those topics are important, and that as readers it’s important for us to read about them. Especially coming-of-age stories in those topics. But I do agree with you that there are so many MORE important topics out there that don’t get as much attention.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Thinking back to the times I’ve heard reviewers call books “important,” it usually means, “This is a topic I care a lot about, and I think you should care about it too, and if you read this book, I believe that you will.” So, they could be right or wrong about those second two propositions.

    If you read or listen to a broad range of commentators, you’ll hear a broad range of books get called important. I’ve heard people use “important” of their own book or of a book published by their organization but not written by them (usually nonfiction). I’m OK with that. I don’t even necessarily think it’s self-serving. After all, they are members of that organization because they care a lot about the topics it addresses, so it’s not surprising that they will get excited when a book is published, addressing those topics, that they think is good.

    I think the problem you are addressing here is that in the fiction industry as a whole, there is a very narrow range of topics that are considered important and there is also a lot of pressure on agents, reviewers, etc. all to be equally passionate about those topics so as not to be called ugly names.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s