Monday, May 12, 2014

Not Finishing

There are some readers who will finish a book regardless of how they feel about the book itself or their own reading experience. It could be the worst book they've ever read, and they'll finish it, word for word, cover to cover. I do not understand this. I cannot do this. When I say "the worst book they've ever read," I mean something completely relevant to the individual reader. Your favorite book could be my idea of a hell on earth, or the other way around. I respect that. But for someone to sit still and suffer through their own version of hell on earth in a neat, handheld package is beyond me.

Thus, I do not finish that which does not earn my interest or respect by page 30. If it has a tentative grip on me, I'll give it to page 50. Due to professional need (I was a middle school librarian at the time) I tried Stephenie Meyer's Twilight twice. On the second attempt I made it to page 90. Sorry. Despite assurances that it gathers speed after that, I just couldn't do it.

Why? Because life is short and I have 397 books (and growing) on my to-read list. Because sometimes you are just not ready for Book A and only Book B will satisfy...then along comes Book A five years down the road and it knocks you off your tush. Like The Grapes of Wrath when I read it in college. I doubt I would have had that amazing experience reading it in high school. I waited to read Jane Austin, almost all of her works, in the year after I graduated from college. I managed to save her just for my personal reading for the whole four years I was getting my English degree. I also managed to avoid reading Charles Dickens, but for very different reasons. Classics are far and away better reading when they are not required reading. Dickens, well, he may not be to my taste at any time. Perhaps that will change for me one day. In the mean time, there is no space for the ol' chap on my to-read list.

I read all kinds of books. Autobiography, other nonfiction, urban fantasy, erotica, paranormal romance, literary fiction that pretends to be "above" genrefication, name it. I do not read crappy writing. Example: recycling almost whole sentences or paragraphs in a book....I'm looking at you, Danielle Steel. I may have trouble memorizing things, but you only have to tell me once that our heroine is blonde and suffering from some trauma in a single book within the first five chapters. I haven't read a Steel novel since that one when I was in high school. Nora Roberts is a far better writer to my mind.

Here's my bedside table right now. One book of essays, two memoirs, one Pulitzer-prize-winning literary fiction, and one urban fantasy (from bottom to top).

The only thing I absolutely will not try reading (I'll give any book or author a fair chance) is an author or book that doesn't respect its readership. How can I tell? I love all things bookish and I've delved into most aspects of the book world. I've worked as an editor at a major publisher, a published writer with a very small press, a freelancer, a proofreader, a researcher, a bookseller in an independent bookstore, and a librarian in all kinds of libraries, including working in acquisitions directly with vendors and distributors. Here's a great example. A certain major New York Times bestselling author was hosted as a guest speaker by our book store and told a store employee that his job is so easy because his readers would purchase and read any ol' slop he puts on a page. Oh, yeah? I will never touch that man's books and I'll give his name to any personal acquaintance who cares to ask. I don't care to be sued by a man with far more moolah and clout than I, but there you have it. I'll tell you many names of who it is not. That, I'm happy to do.

Well. That's one way to find out if a book is not worth your precious reading time. And my lovelies, your reading time is precious.

I feel guilty about not finishing knitting projects. I do not feel that same kind of guilt when I can't finish a book. Some books, yes. I have no idea why I cannot get finished with The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. It is beautifully written and I am keen on the descriptions and the characters. I'm on page 329 and I believe we're in Cold War Hungary. Many other books, mainly nonfiction, are bookmarked and await moments when I need to dip back into them to clear my literary palate of the high drama, and sometimes anxiety, of fiction. Not that nonfiction can't be dramatic. But the writing style can often be soothing.

One marked exception is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. It is fiction, but is so beautifully written and has a "still waters run deep" joy about it that I just love to read it in small chunks in between other things. Sad things happen in it, but it overcomes them with something far more powerful. Another exception is Scattershot: My Bipolar Family, a Memoir by David Lovelace. The very first chapter was such a violent trigger for me that I couldn't read any further.

So, I have intense experiences and sometimes relationships with books and authors. And I can't always predict what will happen, so I give each one a chance (unless they've already burned their bridge, as mentioned above). If you've read my About page, then you know that I'm an unapologetic book sniffer and I love the book as an object and artifact, as well as for its treasured contents. I'm one of those women who include careful consideration of trade-paperback carrying capacity of any purse prior to purchase.

Since I'm being honest about my bookish self, I will let you know that I don't just cease to finish books if they fail me. I have been known to throw them, if the experience was especially bad. Yes, I'm a tosser. Not into the trash. But into the air, against things, into donation boxes with more than necessary force. Even in knitting, I throw the working yarn around the right needle instead of "picking". When Frank E. Peretti killed off a certain female character in The Oath, that book went flying all the way across my bedroom and smacked the wall with a satisfying thud. I know exactly what Bradley Cooper's character felt when he stuck with Hemingway all the way to the end of A Farewell to Arms only to feel utterly betrayed. What did he do? He threw that book as far from him as he could get it. (Here's the scene on YouTube. Major spoiler alert if you haven't read the book and care to.) That's me.

Before readers or writers freak on me, I am a firm believer that the author is utterly free to make their story decisions without worrying about pleasing everyone. You cannot please everyone and if you tried, you'd have a very, very boring book on your hands. So, George R.R. Martin, you keep writing what you want. Piss some readers / viewers off with your willy-nilly powerful death pen. I would soooo read your books if I wasn't kind of scared of them. (I don't want to get all excited, fall in love with a character, and then need to throw a book that size through a wall. This house is a little old.)

I believe there are tons of good books out there and we just have to keep looking for the right book for us at that moment. And that means sometimes looking beyond the “safe” places, such as Oprah's list or any book club list (no offense intended to either). Forge a new path for yourself. Use some (really cool) online tools, like GoodReads or LibraryThing. Use Amazon as a jumping off point for finding read-alikes, or, even better, go right up to a real, live, breathing librarian and say, “Dude, I don't know what to read next and I'm kind of bummed out about it.” Or browse the stacks at a bookstore or library like this: walk very slowly and keep an eye out for fonts or colors on the spines of books that interest you. Sometimes I lightly touch the spines with my finger tips. Make sure to stop here and there to look at the bottom and top shelves, too. Pull these books off the shelf and read the plot summary on the inside flap or the back. Don't put the book back on the shelf if it doesn't strike your fancy. Just put it on a table or lay it flat on an empty space on the shelf. The library magically makes it disappear and return to its proper place later. If you end up with ten books that sound interesting, check out all ten! You don't have to finish them. If you read one, that's great. Especially if that author rocked your world and now you know she/he has five books published. You are now on a quest to find the other four. The only tool you need prior to any of these book-finding techniques (except for the random library / bookstore shelf tours) is the title / author of a book that you really enjoyed. Use that title / author to discover what other readers purchased or read next. That may be a good "read-alike". If you like Christine Feehan's Carpathian series, a good read-alike for you might be Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson series. It's a cool librarian word. Now, you're cool like us. ;)

I have to go now. There is a major sweater that is not finished. That is not cool.


  1. I popped by here and started to read a week back and then the telephone rang and I'm only just getting back to your fabulous post. I couldn't agree more ... life is to short to read to the end of a book because you, or someone else thinks you should. I guess it's akin to cutting short a walk when it starts to rain, why keep going and get drenched.

  2. I'm glad others understand. One day there may be a reason to keep going in the rain, but until then, go inside, get warm, and pull a book out of your pocket while you wait for sun to shine. Book Riot ( just published a short piece in defense of owning lots of books that you haven't read yet. The author talks about loving her TBR (To-Be-Read) shelves just for being there. Here's a quote I liked: "A reading life is a rich experience that isn’t limited to the actual act of reading- it’s also wandering through the library and being suddenly aware of how loudly you walk. It’s petting a cover with an interesting texture."


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