Thursday, May 27, 2010

Confessions of a Temperamental Reader

There’s a moment in one of Anne Fadiman’s essays, in her lovely collection Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, when she finds herself with a painfully long wait ahead of her with nothing to do but read but a car manual. She dives into it with gusto. Clearly, she is more of a survivalist reader than I. Stuck on a delayed flight to Atlanta, I cursed my choice of reading material— Allegra Goodman’s, The Family Markowitz— which I thought I had thoroughly vetted (already 75 pages read prior to the trip, not too long, seemingly interesting characters). I had so enjoyed Goodman’s, Intuition, that perhaps I came to The Family Markowitz biased. Plus, my other choice to bring in my carry-on was Mo Yan’s 552-page tome Big Breasts & Wide Hips, which, if it didn’t pan out would be a much heavier disaster than the 280-page Markowitz. As much as I tried, I just couldn’t push myself to read more than a page or two before stowing it under the seat, preferring to stare out the window, or trying to get comfortable enough to nap.

I find it much easier to articulate why I didn’t click with a person, or a restaurant or movie didn’t work for me than why I put down a book a quarter or halfway through. Often it just feels like a reflex, like when on the treadmill at the gym my brain says, “Yeah, feeling good, ten minutes to go and you’re done, ”and then my body just stops. Good writing, a story that’s moving, sympathetic enough characters, even a bit of dry humor… and then, bang, I just stop.

A sidebar: I wish to acknowledge those many stalwart readers who will finish nearly any book they set out to read. Many of you are friends and I admire your dedication. I’m sure I have missed out on some wonderful books that, had I persevered, might have found to be worthwhile reads. But there are too many wonderful stories and I’m too impatient and picky to stick with something if it’s not satisfying to me. (Oh! If, in earlier days, I had only had the same attitude toward boyfriends.)

I continue to question what makes me stop. Sometimes the reasons are clear—the book goes somewhere I’m not interested in going; there’s a ridiculous plot turn character point, or shift in place/time/action; the novel lingers too long without seeming to go forward or deeper and I get bored; or I grow frustrated with a character. But many times I just can’t describe why.


  1. Oh, I'm one of those who, once starting a book, will not put it down, even if I hate it and it takes me 8 months!

    I think it would be better to toss them if they don't sit well with you, and then get to the next great book.

    my numbers are much lower then they should be, because of that...

  2. I tend to power through...even if I hate it. With one notable exception, "Infinite Jest." I labored about a quarter of the way through it and then I asked my husband, who had finished the book, if it was going to pay off. He thought a moment and then said, "honestly, no." So I quit. I have, in some ways regretted it. I feel I failed a bit. I didn't make it through. Like quitting on a marathon.

    But I guess no one is really watching. I'm not getting graded on that am I. I forget that sometimes. Wasn't life kinda easier when we were getting graded on that?