On being more selective

April 4, 2012 § 4 Comments

In my younger days it was rare for me to abandon a book. I bought more books then, since I lived in a place where books were cheap and bookshops omnipresent, and I almost always trudged dutifully through to the end (although a little judicious skipping now and again might have been involved; it was reaching the end that was the important part – knowing what happened so that I could instantly forget it). Now I keep a list of books that sound interesting, and pick up as many as I can when I go to the library. Since I never actually open the books before I bring them home, I have to go by the covers. One curious thing about books that sound interesting in passing is that those brief tempting snippets can be genre-blind, so it’s not until I see the pink background with high heels, or the black cover with silver stallions and misty semi-human forms, that I realise it’s not my cup of tea.

But sometimes it’s not until I read the first page or even chapter that I realise that yes, this book really does live up to its cover. This is a problem for a lot of books I read, as I have mentioned before, since the vast majority of covers strike me as insipid, aimed too obviously and too annoyingly at women, and particularly at women who like to read books that aren’t too much more demanding than chicklit. They are not aimed at men, nor even at women who don’t need persuading to need something more challenging than Marian Keyes (who probably reads George Saunders or WG Sebald for a change in her spare time). The reason these covers are hard to decipher is that sometimes they contain generic badly written stuff, and sometimes they contain works of genius. (So why don’t I read a sample while I’m at the library or the bookshop? Good question.)

I abandon those misleadingly jacketed books quite happily (really it is the more literary ones that are in disguise, as if publishers know that they will sell more this way, whether or not the purchasers read them – and probably they will), usually within two or three pages. No point wasting time on something I can tell right away I won’t enjoy. If I was stuck in hospital without any other reading material, fine. But since I’m not, and since I’m only going to read maybe 100 books a year, and only around 70 of those will be contemporary novels in English, then the decision is obvious.

It’s the ones that start out promisingly, but then continue to merely seem promising without ever actually serving anything more substantial, that are harder to drop. Once you’ve invested the time to read 150 pages, you might as well carry on. (This sort of false-economy logic is common in knitting as well: even when it’s perfectly clear that the child’s cardigan will fit a 200-pound man, it’s surprisingly hard to accept this and unravel it.) But I am learning to walk away. I should probably write this in very tiny print, but I recently gave up on The Cat’s Table, which many Ondaatje fans have celebrated this as a return to form after several disasters. Around halfway through I quietly put it down, not because I didn’t think it was good, but because the next book on the pile seemed more appealing.

My house historian doesn’t have a problem with abandoning books: the place is littered with thousand-pagers that were bought on impulse and started immediately (no endlessly rearranged piles of what should be next on the reading list for him), a receipt or restaurant card marking a page between 50 and 100. (He sees a golden future in which they will all be read. I see an opportunity for decluttering.)

It was in this spirit that I decided not to go beyond page 20 of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. It so clearly wasn’t my thing, and I had no obligation to read it beyond my own self-imposed Orange longlist challenge. But why? Why go to the gym for a session on the treadmill when you can go for a walk in the woods? Now, when I’ve finished a couple of work-related reads, I can pick up something by Hans Fallada or Meg Wolitzer, or catch up on the much-neglected LRB.

Like all new converts, I’m zealous about my change of heart, so some cod-philosophy is called for here. Feeling obliged to finish a book you’ve started is the literary equivalent of clearing your plate when you’re not hungry. Reading one you don’t even find appealing is like discovering that the only food in the house is a supersize bag of pretzels, and devouring every last crumb, even though you don’t like pretzels in the slightest, and a perfectly decent Indian takeaway is just round the corner. Power to the picky!

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§ 4 Responses to On being more selective

  • Power to the picky? Yay! I love it! I especially like your clean plate analogy. Abandoning books that aren’t great is a liberating thing to do and I’m sure your overall reading quality will increase. Stay strong and good luck!

  • Jim says:

    So tell us ..was the book that replaced the Cat’s Table a better read for you ?……………..P.S …loved The Cat’s Table .

    • I’m embarrassed to say I can’t even remember what it was! I haven’t yet heard anyone say a bad word about The Cat’s Table, so I might try it again one day. Perhaps it wasn’t entirely fair trying to read it at a time when I was only making it through five pages a day.

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