>On Partial Reading of ‘Good’ Books, and Spending Time Reading ‘Bad’ Ones

>I’m usually willing to ditch a book after reading about 1/3 if I don’t find it intriguing. My method for reading novels: If I’m doubtful that I want to finish the book, I’ll commit the scandalous act of reading the last pages. If I find that the ending is predictable, the book is tossed. If, however, I think ‘what the …? How’d that happen?’, I’ll read further. Sometimes this has rewarded me with the completion of a book I otherwise wouldn’t have cared about losing. It took me years to get beyond the second chapter of The Cider House Rules, but I’ve appreciated Irving ever since. I heard Irving read the first chapter of Til I Find You, and I look forward to reading it, but it may wait in the TBR pile for some time before I pick it up.

With some books, I’m resentful for having wasted my time whether I’ve read the ending or not; reading Alice Hoffman’s Here on Earth comes to mind: 30 pages to go, I feel asleep. The TV was on. I awoke at 2 am to Wuthering Heights only to realize: Oh, crap! This book is such a rip-off of Bronte — and I didn’t notice it. (I hadn’t read Heights since I was 12; obviously, it never topped my ‘Memorable Books’ List.)

Sometimes I will start a book and put it down half way through. Other books enter my reading life, pushing the partial reads into the periphery — to the bottom of the book pile, under the bed, the back seat of the car. Sometimes it’s months before they creep back into sight. Sometimes they demand attention, but I continue to ignore them, choosing other works instead. Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty fits into this category. Started in November on a plane ride, I allowed it to linger in the carry-on until recently. I hadn’t forgotten about this book, but I didn’t feel like I had the energy to plunge through it to the end. It’s a beautifully written book. I was a naive 20-something in the early 80’s, even in London briefly, and while I floated in much different circles than the main character Nick, I knew that Hollinghurst’s depiction of the socio-political milieu during the Thatcher/Reagan era was on target. However, within the first few chapters I made a mental note to reread Brideshead Revisited; a few chapters later, anything by Henry James. It’s been 25+ years since I’ve read either and I want to confirm and support my reading of Hollinghurst’s subtle references to each. Perhaps this is what keeps me from returning immediately to finish reading this book. Look for a discussion of this in a post at a still to be determined date. I will finish The Line of Beauty, but it may take a while before I return to it, longer still before I write about it.

So, why then, with many ‘good’ works awaiting me, did I waste my precious reading time over the last few weeks reading not one, but two books which certainly rank among the poorest examples of published writing I’ve ever held in my hands? Perhaps my goal to read so many books this year has inspired some sort of bibliophile’s OCD, twisting my psyche to believe that I must finish what I have started. Or, maybe it was a sort of voyeurism, like rubber-necking at a car crash, that propelled me forward: “It can’t be any worse, can it? Oh wait, it can. Enter into evidence, chapter #12….”

Book Waste #1: The Good, The Bad, and the Mad: Some Weird People in American History, E. Randall Floyd. I’m not sure why I purchased this book. A book bought on impulse while standing in line at the bookstore, one that jumped out at me from the bargain book bin. At least I didn’t spend a lot of dough! It vaguely reminded me of a book with a blue cover I treasured when I was about 8 or 10 years old. Part of a series, the book (title no longer remembered) consisted of several individual biographies of people of note. It was my introduction to biography, to reading non-fiction for pleasure, and the start of an enjoyable life-long collection of trivial facts that carry little value other than enabling me to be good at Jeopardy! (Are you listening Alex & Clues Crew??)

At slightly more than 100 pages, this book looked like fine fodder for filling in brief gaps of wasted time, like standing in line at the post office or while watching the Olympics. Profiling 30 characters — some known like Jane Addams or Huey Long, others only known perhaps in esoteric circles like Robert Howard — the book does give the reader some truly oddball characters to consider. But, the writing is dry and uninteresting and often repetitive. A summary of each chapter is presented in the opening paragraphs. This technique in itself is not bad, but the writer doesn’t follow up with enough details to make his case. Instead, the reader is left reading the same ‘facts’ over again, or left dangling, hoping for more than just a comment on some unusual aspect of the individual’s behavior. In still other chapters, I wondered just what was so odd about the person. I found myself thinking of the comment all Freshman Writing instructors apply too frequently on student papers: “Show; Don’t tell”.

Reading this book was spending a couple of hours that I’ll never get back, reading that could have been so much more. A compilation of profiles, such as this, should at least be entertaining if it isn’t going to spark the reader to learn more about someone beyond the People Magazine-length profile. There must be better reads while standing in line at the PO.

Book #2 House Calls and Hitching Posts, Dorcas Sharp Hoover. This was my reading group’s selection of the month and the premise sounded promising: a biography of a doctor who treated the Amish people of Northern Ohio for 40 years. In my reading group, I often take some heat for not finishing books. This year, I decided that, time allowing, I would complete all of the books. It was difficult to not throw this book into the heap after the first two chapters, but because I was determined to finish it, I trod through 30 chapters, nearly 400 pages of plodding prose.

Yet, I felt some twinges of guilt for despising this book so much. The subject after all, is interesting. Dr. Elton Lehman is truly an inspiring human being — dedicated, selfless, caring, tolerant, faithful to his personal beliefs — and the book does give some insightful glimpses into the lives of the Amish. But, this book was in desperate need of professional editing. While it didn’t suffer the scourge of many self-published books (I tried but couldn’t find one typo or glaring grammatical error), the prose varied widely from purplish and overwrought to simplistic as an elementary school composition. In an effort to retell stories accurately or perhaps to convey a folksy, country setting, dialog is used throughout. But, the dialog is poorly written and seems contrived. While fabricating events in a memoir a la Frey is definitely out of bounds, a good writer knows when to trim, understanding that retelling every bit of minutia does not help to convey the full story.

Reading House Calls and Hitching Posts was like being trapped by someone’s aging uncle at your second cousin’s wedding reception: you want to be polite and listen to the stories, but after some time the stories run together and you’d rather make your escape by dancing the hokey-pokey or drinking more of the too-sweet punch. An experienced editor would have trimmed this book by 200 pages and the end result would have been both an interesting and a captivating read. Can’t something be inspirational and well-written? While not a complete waste of my time like Book #1 above, it was a disappointment.

What about you? What are your criteria for continuing to read a book? What treasure have you discovered by continuing past painful introductory chapters? Do you have a recommendation for a work of ‘inspirational literature’ that is well-written? Can you think of a self-published work that did NOT give you reason to think “No wonder nobody else would publish this?” Please comment.

Comments are closed.