One of the things I look for in my reading is atmosphere. Lots and lots of atmosphere. What do I mean when I say atmosphere? The entry in A Handbook to Literature by Holman and Harmon (6th ed.) describes it well:
The prevailing tone or mood of a literary work, particularly -- but not exclusively -- when that mood is established in part by setting or landscape. It is, however, not simply setting but rather an emotional aura that helps to establish the reader's expectations and attitudes. Examples are the somber mood established by the description of the prison door in the opening chapter of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, the brooding sense of fatality engendered by the description of Egdon Heath at the beginning of Hardy's The Return of the Native, the sense of "something rotten in the state of Denmark" established by the scene on the battlements at the opening of Hamlet, or the opening stanza of Poe's "The Raven."The key for me seems to be something that evokes a mood. The moodier the better. I want my reading to move me in some way. Atmosphere is why I read China Mieville, Avram Davidson and Jack Vance. I may not always remember the plot lines of what I read, but I do recall the atmosphere generated by certain authors.
Something else I look for in my reading is a sense of justice. What I like about formulaic mysteries (often synonomous with police procedurals) is the knowledge that all will be righted in the end; justice will be served. Sure, there are bad guys and gals galore, but with a formula mystery you KNOW that they will not win. They will be punished for their badness and the world will once again be set aright. Of course this is a bit of escapism for me; it does not match reality. Just watch the news. This is precisely why I turn off the news sometimes (often these days) and stick my nose into a good mystery. I find this sense of justice in some other genres, but never so reliably as I do in mysteries ... and some days I just need the justice.
A third thing I look for is the "what if" factor. This can often be found in science fiction, or speculative fiction as some people refer to this genre. I love "what if." I love the sense of suspense and the hopefulness that goes with "what if" reading. What if we could really do this or that; what if we could really go there; what if .... The "what ifs" are endless and allow the imagination to run wild. The "what if" literature is probably some of the most closely related to childhood. Perhaps that is why I like it so much; I can let my inner child run free for a few hours.
Well folks, I could go on indefinitely about the topic of reading and what I like to find in those wonderful tomes of bound words -- but I'll leave some for another day and leave you room to think about your own preferences.
What do you look for in your reading?