I took a vacation last year, a long one, involving hours and hours on an airplane and days and days during which I needed neither to cook nor clean. Perfect time for reading, right? I’d carefully curated a list of titles on my Kindle (I need choice, for precisely the reasons you’ll read here) but planned to start with Wolf Hall. However, when I opened it and saw the family tree and the lengthy list of characters, I knew it wasn’t Kindle/vacation reading.
I started, instead, I Couldn’t Love You More by Jill Medoff, and it was so bad, I finally gave it up. (I know you’re going to ask me so I’ll just say this: nothing about it was believable, from the characters to the situations—that is, the plot—and the writing only compounded the problem; it could have benefited from some decent editorial, but apparently got none.*) I wasted an entire Atlantic Ocean flight on it before I packed it in. (sigh)
Before last year, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’d bailed on a book. (Ken Follett’s World Without End springs to mind. I think it is the probably the single worst book I’ve ever read half of.) My upbringing was of the rah-rah-don’t-be-a-quitter variety, so in the past I’ve persevered through almost every book I picked up.
This has its rewards, of course. We can all name books that were slow to start but were fantastic in the end. (Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, for example. A quick canvas of my reading friends also turned up In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, A Quiet Vendetta by R. J. Ellory, and Chabon’s Wonder Boys for the Worth It List.)
But last spring my friend Beth spent some time with writer (and book reviewer) Maud Newton. Newton’s working on a novel and has published short fiction all over the place. She blogs about books, too, to such a degree the Paris Review says she is “required reading for readers.” Maud Newton knows from books, kids.** Later, Beth wrote about all this. Including:
As a reviewer, Maud Newton asks herself, “Does this book feel like it will be for me; will it be edifying to me in some way?” If the answer is no, she puts it down, never to pick it up again. “I’m really a selfish reader.”
Well, that was an epiphany.
The fact is, the time I have for personal reading is finite. Not every book is for me. I know this now, although I didn’t have my breakthrough right away.
I started The Book Thief—great reviews and Beth’d raved about it—and hated it. What is wrong with me? I asked her. “I give you permission,” she wrote, “to stop.” (I did. Later I picked it up again and finished it—and although I still can’t say I liked it, I’m glad I persevered.) In addition to the Medoff, I gave up on two other books last year (Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which had come highly recommended, and Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken, for which I’d had high expectations).
Now I carry this Message of Hope and Freedom to family and friends, one of whom recently posted on Facebook that she’d begun skipping sections of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. “I would say ‘starting to skip’ is where you’ve realized it’s not for you,” I told her. “I assume the problem is me,” she said. “I’m missing something and if I keep on I might find what that is.”
No, dear one. It’s not a personal failing. That book’s just not for you.
The beauty of this is, of course, there’s always another book.
*I don’t mentally edit every book I read. I don’t. My personal reading is pleasure reading. But when a book has been badly or barely edited, I can tell; you probably can too.
**It’s interesting, also, that she avoids negative reviews. Although I understand it; when I’m excited about a book (see: Wolf Hall) I want to talk about it to everyone. I’ve written about this before.
UPDATE: Brought to Newton’s attention on Twitter, the post above occasioned this response: “Even [Jorge Luis] Borges advocated not spending time with books you don’t love!” Which settles it definitively for me. :)
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”