Here is an idea I love that may or may not be true:
Some books have a centripetal force— they suck you in from other books.
Some books have a centrifugal force — they spin you out to other books.
Moby-Dick, for example, is a book whose force seems to me centripetal: after being pointed to it by other books, I found myself returning to it, again and again. It sucks me in.
The Writer’s Map, on the other hand, a glorious current read of mine, is a book whose force feels centrifugal: two chapters in, and I already have a long list of books and to chase down. It spins me out.
Both kinds of books can be extremely valuable to the reader, and I don’t think one kind is necessarily better than the other. I’m also not sure that these forces are objectively observed. One reader’s centripetal book could be another’s centrifugal, and vice versa. It’s also possible that a book can both suck you in and spin you out.
This, by the way, is not an original theory of mine. I first heard it from my friend Matt Thomas, over a decade ago. “Good movies, I find, are centrifugal,” he once tweeted. “That is, they spin you out—to other movies, ideas, art, people.” He’s also tweeted that he finds Facebook centripetal (it sucks you in) and Twitter centrifugal (it spins you out).
I asked Matt where he got this idea, of media with centripetal and centrifugal forces, and he pointed me to Susan Douglas’s book about radio, Listening In. I searched the whole book and only found this reference:
“Listening, argues one researcher on perception, “is centripetal; it pulls you into the world. Looking is centrifugal; it separates you from the world.”
(This passage speaks to Murray Schafer on sound, but that’s for another blog post.)
Again, I don’t want to place a value judgment on a book based on its centripetal or centrifugal force, but I do think that a centrifugal book can be of lesser quality and still retain its value, as its value is found in the things it spins you out to.
Matt suggested to me that there’s a third category of work: the work that doesn’t spin you at all, the work that doesn’t move you in any direction, the work that barely has any force to it.
These books are to be avoided.