Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: When to Bail on a Book

Dear John Letter

I recently broke up with a book. There was something about the style I just wasn’t crazy about. It’s a beautiful book about a really difficult subject and I honestly wanted to read it all the way through. To make matters worse, it’s a best-seller written by a highly acclaimed author.

Uh oh.

I felt like an idiot. Why didn’t I “get it?” Why did I see sentences rearranged in ways that are meant to be poetic and lyrical as nothing more than gimmicks? What would I tell people if I’m asked if I’ve read it? Would I be mocked? Silently pitied?  Viewed as unsympathetic or cold? Should I just lie and say I hadn’t read it yet?

I did a quick Google search on the author, specifically looking for something about her writing I might not have seen, something that might have caused me to miss the meaning of her work entirely. Turns out, she’s highly praised for her  style.

<GULP!>

When to Bail

There are rules, you know. Subtract your age from 100 and that’s how many pages you have to read before closing a book permanently. Until you’re 50. Then you always have a 50-page minimum. There are folks who say “50 pages,” regardless of age. Some feel we can’t, as readers, know if a book is truly good or bad unless we’ve read the entire thing because, as is occasionally pointed out, the good stuff is at the end. Others continue reading out of some sort of obligation to the author, as if the author is a psychic and will know whether or not a complete stranger read the entire work.

Leigh Haber, a books editor for Oprah’s magazine O, recently admitted she gives a book a meager 25 pages before putting a book down for good, though she still feels guilty about it. Downright scandalous!

Actually, maybe it’s not so scandalous. Haber’s admission is part of a Wall Street Journal Online article titled Guilt Complex: Why Leaving a Book Half-Read Is So Hard. It’s a great article dealing with the psychology of and research on why we feel obligated to trudge through bad plot, garish dialogue, and under-developed characters. Personality type can be a factor, as well as habit formed by having been forced to read books in their entirety when we were in growing up. Interestingly, the article indicates people in their 30s seem to feel most guilty. I’ve noticed an almost cultish sense of pride among 20-somethings. I’m in my 40s. According to research I shouldn’t really care.

To Thine Own Self Be True

When it comes to writing style, I’m a reader with whom an author must tread very lightly. I love a great story. Notice the emphasis on the word story. I absolutely love being taken on an emotional roller coaster. I don’t need a book to have a happy ending or a major revelation or even resolution. If the characters are well-developed enough and the plot moves well enough, I’m sold. When I was younger I hated reading a book that didn’t reveal all. At some point, however, I’ve turned into the kind of weirdo who hates it when a book tries to neatly tie everything up: life doesn’t work that way. I enjoy finishing a book and letting all the “what-ifs” percolate infinitely in my brain. Give me something to sink into, connect with, a book I want to reread, chew on and mull over. But for the love of everything good and holy, I’m begging you please, please don’t give me gratuitous language play and/or metaphor just for the sake of style.

I’m almost embarrassed to admit I quit reading The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion because the deliberate attempts to make it seem more musical felt a tad forced and obvious. The topic is already an emotionally difficult one. Most of us have suffered great, unfathomable loss. I desperately wanted to empathize but on my own terms, not pushed toward it by someone else’s rhythm the way waves push a piece of driftwood to shore.

I wanted to know Didion’s heart, not her technique.

I put it down and picked up a copy of Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. In the introduction she writes about the person she was when she originally wrote the little stories in the book:

She experiments, creating a text that is as succinct and flexible as poetry, snapping sentences into fragments so that the reader pauses, making each sentence serve her and not the other way round, abandoning quotation marks to streamline the typography and make the page as simple and readable as possible.

The House on Mango StreetI loved every single word. I felt Cisneros’s passion. In four short paragraphs I understood the young girl knew the reason other families were leaving Mango Street had nothing to do with the dangerous creep a few doors down or the animal hoarder next door and everything to do with bigotry. The narrator repeatedly broke my heart with the simplest words and phrases.

I finished The House on Mango Street knowing I couldn’t finish The Year of Magical Thinking. I feel no guilt about it at all. Joan Didion doesn’t know me. I’m pretty sure it’s not going to hurt her feelings if it sits in my book basket for a few more weeks. I also know that there are a lot of people who connected with and deeply love her book and I might be in the minority. I’m good with that.

Reading is truly one of the most precious gifts we have. A great story can be a wonderful escape, a learning tool, a connection to others like us, a way of knowing we aren’t alone in our joy or grief. A really great one can shake us to the core and change our souls. We crack open a book and for a little while become time travelers, detectives, monsters, brilliant scientists, the list goes on forever. We let our imaginations light up the pleasure centers of our brains in combination with using critical thinking skills. Reading should never ever be drudgery.

“Just Do It”

If you’re only 20 pages into a book and you’re hurrying to get to the mandated 50 pages, close it and put it away. Break up with it. Write a Dear John in your journal if you must. Dear (insert title here): I’m sorry. Really. It’s not you, it’s me. I need a break. Sincerely, Me. Then go grab the next book in your pile.

Life is way too short to read something you don’t like!

3 thoughts on “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: When to Bail on a Book

  1. “Some feel we can’t, as readers, know if a book is truly good or bad unless we’ve read the entire thing because, as is occasionally pointed out, the good stuff is at the end.”

    I’m familiar with this argument, but I don’t agree with it. A good writer doesn’t put the good stuff at the end, because a writer’s first job is to keep us reading. Just like any relationship, you have to do the work every day. :-)

    • I agree completely, Anthony! The good stuff should be throughout the entire work, not just in one spot. When I start wondering if that’s where the good stuff is, I walk away. Plain and simple.

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