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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

When to Hold 'Em, When to Fold 'Em

“Do you ever leave a book half finished? What are your criteria for picking up a book and deciding to read it? Do you plug on, even if it isn't immediately engrossing, waiting for it to get good?”

These questions come to me by e-mail from a family member in Kalamazoo, and they’re good questions. Not long ago I quoted Robert Gray and will quote him here again, this time on the sheer volume of books inundating a bookseller’s life: “You open one after another and the magic just doesn't happen, and then you open one and it does.” In other words, no bookseller can finish every book opened, so you go with those that offer magic, in whatever form.

I am often reading more than one book at a time. In one period of my life, I kept one book going in the bedroom, a second in the living room, a third in the bathroom. Life since 1993, the birth of Dog Ears Books, has been more complicated. Now there are books coming to work with me in the morning and going home with me at night…books on or under the counter with bookmarks in them…books piled on the dining table and next to the bed. It’s been so long since I started NOTES OF AN UNREPENTANT FIELD GEOLOGIST that I recently started over at the beginning after unearthing that magical (to me) story. Not everyone would be charmed and transported by memories of someone else’s academic career, but in this case I’m hooked, however long it takes me to finish the book. Why did I pick it up in the first place? What intrigued me? Rocks, of course! See posting for September 26.

COLD MOUNTAIN, by Ian Frasier, was a novel that wouldn’t catch fire for me on the first, second or even third attempt. I just couldn’t get into it. I don’t feel guilty about setting books aside, either temporarily or permanently, but for some reason I picked this one up for a fourth time, and that was the charm. We were traveling through Tennessee at the time, and the moment was ripe. Bingo!

THE CRYING OF LOT 49, by Thomas Pynchon, was one that involved me in several false starts. Once I got into it, I was in for the long haul. Toni Morrison’s BELOVED had me thoroughly confused at the beginning, and it might have been a sense of duty that kept me at the task, but the effort more than paid off.

Proust, though--. Have I admitted that I got thoroughly bored with the second volume and ditched it halfway through? After loving SWANN’S WAY? Eventually I picked up the last volume, TIME RECAPTURED, and found that magical, but I have never read the middle volumes. The friend of a friend, the former a Proust scholar, tells me that this is a common pattern, that many people read only the first and last volumes of REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST.

When do I bail on a novel? If I don’t care about the characters, I won’t keep reading, no matter how technically flawless the writing. A novel is a big time commitment. THE DA VINCI CODE was one of those for me. It wasn’t badly written, and it wasn’t boring—it really moved along—but I just didn’t care. What’s magic for enough people to make a best-seller won’t be magic for everyone.

Really bad editing bothers me. “It suddenly donned on him.” Donned? I beg your pardon? What do you think that means? On the other hand, I’ll overlook some roughness around the edges for the sake of original, exciting writing.

A lot of nonfiction can, in whole or in part, be profitably skimmed. Here ideas or information are what counts; we’re asked to examine the world from a particular perspective but don’t have to enter the psyche of various invented characters. By contrast, in my opinion, any novel that begs to be skimmed is a novel not worth reading.

The best nonfiction books read like a series of essays. The first chapter of Thomas Wolfe’s THE PAINTED WORD seemed complete in itself, and I wondered what on earth succeeding chapters could add. Each one amplified the original chapter, taking the argument up a notch. Brilliant! The opposite are those books that would have been better as magazine articles but were for some reason inflated to book length. With those, you get the point early on, and the rest is filling. Skim! Skim fast! Or throw it down and pick up something else!

Sometimes a book doesn’t strike me as “immediately engrossing,” but there is some elusive something about it that holds out promise. One friend told me about the “Rule of 50.” According to this rule, you give a book 50 pages to grab you if you are under the age of 50, and after that you subtract a page for every year. At the age of 60, in other words, you’re only obligated to read 40 pages before calling “Game over!” If you want a rule, this one is probably as good as any. My own way is much more casual, not reducible to a formula.

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