Why Good Books Should Be Like Suitcases

Why Good Books Should Be Like Suitcases

Books and suitcases have something in common – you can carry them wherever you go.

A good book never leaves your side because you read it again and again. Why? Because it’s like a smuggler’s suitcase. Let me tell you all about it.

Why Books Should Be Like Suitcases

German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki was the first to compare books to suitcases ( in his German book Der doppelte Boden, 1992). He was very passionate about literature and on a crusade for good books. Relentless in pointing out authors’ shortcomings, he was criticised for never explaining what it took to write a good book. That’s when he drew the comparison of books to smuggler’s suitcases.

Why A Smuggler’s Suitcase?

A smuggler’s suitcase is one with a false bottom. The false bottom creates a secret compartment in the suitcase. That’s where smugglers put the most valuable items. When you open the suitcase, the bottom is covered with all kinds of things. It’s only when you take them out, and when you examine the suitcase closely, that you can discover the false bottom.

In his many lectures, Reich-Ranicki expanded this analogy. According to him, the reader can come across three different kinds of suitcases. Let’s look at them and I’ll explain why each suitcase stands for good books with very different readers.

The Holiday Suitcase

There’s the suitcase (or book) that you open, seeing all the contents at a glance. It’s like a suitcase for a holiday, so there are no surprises. What you see is what you get. Swimming trunks, sun lotion, flip flops. Setting, characters, conflict, plot.

The author’s style is usually very accessible, the characters are clear-cut, and there’s a good plot but not too intricate. You don’t need a university education to understand it.

Just because these books are easy to read, they’re not badly written. Writers of these books still need to give their scenes a foundation, tension, and a clear-cut shape (read more about the layers of a scene here). They just do it in a straightforward manner. The hidden compartment is empty. Books read for mere entertainment belong in this category, like detective novels, for example. Just look at Agatha Christie’s novels. Just because the meaning is easy to detect doesn’t mean they’re penny novels. 

The Smuggler’s Suitcase

Open the smuggler’s suitcase, and you find lots of interesting things. They are so distracting that you might never even discover the false bottom.

But the hidden loot is there. It exists. And whether you see it or not, you can sense it. It makes the suitcase heavy. It might slide around noisily as you move the suitcase. You need to take out everything to examine the suitcase. Once you open the false bottom you might discover a whole new world!

Good books are like that, too. They offer a lot to engage your imagination when you first read them. Then you read them a second time, maybe even a third. The more often you read them, the more you discover the hidden meanings. The symbolism, the metaphors, the breaks in register, the double-entendres, the witty remarks. The motifs and intricate subplots have always mesmerized you, but it took at least a second reading to see them.

All of these literary tools have given weight to the book even when you read it the first time. Even when you didn’t notice them. It’s these hidden things that make you enjoy the book over and over again. That’s why we call these books ‘great.’

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series belongs to this category, and Shakespeare’s plays. But there’s still one more suitcase to go. 

The Fancy Trunk

Fancy trunks are klutzy. They’re hard to open with their padlocks and snapping buckles. You open them with much anticipation – to find that they’re empty. You’re tempted to throw them away, right? But it’s such a fancy suitcase, there must be more to it.

After a lot of examining, you discover the false bottom. You’ll find the secret compartment crammed with all kinds of things.

Books like the ‘fancy trunk’ are the ones we can never access in our first reading. The style is complicated, the plot’s a complete maze, and there isn’t a single character you can identify with.

The book seems to lack meaning. That’s because you haven’t found the secret compartment. With these books, there’s always a risk that you won’t.

These are the books academia will love.  They’re so full of symbolism that you need a dictionary and secondary literature to crack their code. James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake is one of those. Or T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland.

Which Suitcase Will It Be For You?

As a writer, we need to decide which kind of suitcase our book should be. How accessible do you want your secret bottom to be? What kind of readers do you want?

Maybe you like the fancy trunks. You want your book to be secretive and only for the initiated with stamina. You want your book to be a challenge. That’s hard to write and hard to sell to a publishing house. Nowadays, these kinds of books are written less often than at the beginning of the 20th century.

So how about doing the opposite? Today’s readers have little time and little patience. How about you decorate your novel with some glitzy symbols and quirky characters? No need to bother the reader with a hidden bottom.

Then you’re writing for the readers who want to be entertained. You’ll sell your book and attract lots of readers. But these readers will read your book only once.

What To Do For Maximum Readers

If you want more readers, you need to offer exciting trinkets to get your readers’ attention. Remember to fill your secret compartment. That’s where all the finer nuances go, the philosophical ideas, the hidden symbols, hints that might put the plot on a grander scale of history or politics, for example. These are the things readers discover once they’ve finished the novel (that’s when they should discover the secret bottom at the latest).

As a writer, you need to show a lot but not everything. Wait for the readers to decipher some things on their own.

If you manage to do this, then you’re writing for the broadest spectrum of readers. The ones who want to be entertained, and the ones who love cracking the code of books. Some will be happy, reading your book once. Others will read again and again because they find the smuggled goods of your book immensely rewarding.

The Last Word

I hope this comparison of books and suitcases has helped you to understand why we find some books good, some great, and some hard to access. I hope this theory helps you shape your book exactly the way you want it.

There is no right or wrong way; the only way is your way. Happy writing!

Further Reading

As hard as it is to say why some books are considered ’great,’ there are statistics about what makes a book a best-seller. Please read ‘The Anatomy Of A Best-Selling Book.

Susanne Bennett

By Susanne Bennett. Susanne is a German-American writer who is a journalist by trade and a writer by heart. After years of working at German public radio and an online news portal, she has decided to accept challenges by Deadlines for Writers. Currently she is writing her first novel with them. She is known for overweight purses and carrying a novel everywhere. Follow her on Facebook.

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Posted on: 13th May 2024

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