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So Many Books, So Little Time
by Moira Allen
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I blame, of course, Goodwill. They know me there. Where else can you pick up paperbacks for 50 cents each (or 40 cents if you buy five or more)? Realistically, as I look at the ever-growing stacks, I must accept that I will probably never manage to read them all. Especially if I keep acquiring at a rate of about three new books to every one that I read and discard.
What has been more difficult to accept, however, is the realization that I don't actually have to. I'm not getting any younger, and the stacks aren't getting any smaller. But it has begun to dawn on me that "Life's too short to waste on the wrong books!"
I've heard many writers, and readers, speak of some book that they are "struggling" to get through. Usually it's either a popular bestseller that "everyone" is raving about, or the sort of "classic" that anyone with any pretense of education or culture simply must read. Often, the person speaks of this book, whatever it is, in tones of awe; they just know, deep down, it is a "wonderful" book. But when they talk of reading it, they describing "managing" to "get through" a page or two (or even a paragraph or two) each night before falling asleep. Often, one gets the impression that the book itself is, in fact, conducive to the "falling asleep" bit.
I began to wonder: Why do we struggle through books we can barely pick up, books we can't wait to put down? The primary explanation, I suspect, is that many of us believe that public opinion is wiser than personal taste. "Everyone" says this book is a must-read. "Everyone" loves it. How can "everyone" be wrong? So you try, and you try, and you try -- and the book sits on your nightstand for months, the bookmark inching through the pages so slowly that it would require time-lapse photography to record its progress.
It's the "Emperor's New Clothes" syndrome, in books.
Further, I believe most of us compulsive readers have grown up with a deeply ingrained belief that if you start a book, you ought to finish it. Picking it up may be hard, but putting it down and simply walking away is even harder. Leaving a book unfinished feels a bit like failing some sort of test: Other people finished it, why can't I?
That actually makes as much sense as assuming that if you date someone, you must marry them. In reality, you know that ending a relationship that isn't working doesn't mean there was anything wrong with you or the other person -- it simply means you weren't right for each other. The same is true of books: There are thousands of books and thousands of readers who are simply not right for one another.
"But what if it gets better?" we ask, pushing on for yet another page, yet another chapter in hopes that the plot might pick up, the dialogue become more entertaining, or that we might find a character we actually care about. And in fairness, I've picked up books that have had an unpromising start, but that have gone on to capture my interest not only for that volume but for an entire series.
With that in mind, I've developed a two-stage "triage" program for the books I drag home from Goodwill. First, I read the first two or three pages. Sometimes, that's enough to tell me that the topic, style or characters aren't to my taste. If I haven't felt the urge to put the book aside by the third or fourth page, however, I move it to the "to be read" pile (unless, of course, it grabs me so completely that I have to finish it now). When I next pick it up, I'm willing to give it quite a bit more leeway. But if, by page 20 or 30 or thereabouts, I'm still not hooked, I no longer hold out much hope that it is going to "get better" further on. Opening scenes are hard to write, and may not be fully representative of an author's style -- but 20 or 30 pages is.
But does writing off a book mean writing off the author? There, I advise a bit of caution! More than once, I've discarded a book and sworn I'd never read another by that author again, only to pick up another book later and find that I couldn't put it down. An author may write one series that you love and another that you hate. One author's first book may be his best; another's first may be her worst. Some authors get better over time; others seem to run out of ideas. However, at the same time, you can probably identify factors that will help you decide whether you like an author at all. If, for example, you're a reader who doesn't care for books peppered with profanity, and every character in a book uses the "f" word in virtually every paragraph, it's probably a safe bet that you're not going to like other books by the same author. If an author is using a book as a platform to espouse views that you strongly disagree with, it's also a safe bet that you won't want to read more of that author's work.
In the long run, however, the best way to determine whether a book is worthy of your time is by recognizing how you react to the actual act of reading it. I cherish my evening reading time, when I curl up with a cup of decaf and a bowl of popcorn and (I hope) a good book. When I'm in the middle of a book and I can't wait to get back to it, then that, for me, is a "good" book. If, however, I can't quite recall what I'm supposed to be reading, or feel no enthusiasm for the evening read, that's not such a good sign. I also pay attention to whether my mind is "hooked" or wandering. My reading corner has no shortage of distractions: Other books, magazines, catalogs, knitting, Sudoku games. If I find that I'm repeatedly putting the book down and picking up something else, that's another indication that it isn't holding my attention. I'm sure I could find many excellent, clearly defined reasons for this, but why bother? My inner reader is simply telling me, "We're not a match."
Finding the right book, finding a new author whose words charm you and thrill you and inspire you, is a bit like falling in love. Just as life is too short to squander time, energy and emotion on an unfulfilling relationship, it's also too short to spend a lot of time with books we're not in love with.
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.