No: A Reading Manifesto

Friends, something truly wonderful has happened to me.

All my life, I’ve been plagued with a particular mental block when it comes to books; specifically, that if I start one and get past a certain point–around page 50–I must finish it, regardless of its quality. Because of this strange form of what often turns out to be terrible and un-metaphorical self-abuse, I have read a number of very bad, I mean really very, very terrible books. I have read books that fatally bored me, enraged me, irritated me so much I began expressing my reading irritation in my real life. I should not have done this, ever. Life is short. The list of books worth reading is very long.

But it’s not just about balancing one lifetime’s worth of reading against 50 lifetimes worth of books. It’s not only about not being mean to my husband because the dinks in that McEwan novel are being such pathetic losers to each other, and my irritation at them is so profound, that I start becoming like them in some kind of mysterious and disturbing literary alchemical process.

Actually, McEwan, I CAN quit you.
Actually, McEwan, I CAN quit you.

That McEwan novel is Enduring Love. I began reading it a few weeks ago–my plan had been to read a solidly written novel mostly devoid of substance so that I could get caught up on the other books I wanted to blog on and not worry about blogging on it.

I haven’t got caught up AND I’ve wasted 100 pages of reading time being pissed off. I was on the train last night, trying to force my way through McEwan’s smug smugness re: religion and (homo)sexuality when I felt the shackles of “should” fall off me. Screw it. I don’t care if the “Books Completed” pages on this site end up being half-filled with unfinished books. I will not foist bookish mediocrity (as I define it, obvi) on my poor brain anymore. No.

Last night, I gave the book one last shot. I read 10 more pages and decided a number of things: 1) That guy I went to high school with, who quit reading The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz 4 pages shy of the ending because he’d begun to hate it just that much–he was right. This leads to 2) I will quit a book that seems like a waste of my time no matter how far into it I am. I will not be ashamed. 3) I would prefer to be unable to find the time to write about books that really deserve to be written about, rather than read shit just to pen hate-filled screeds. I find hate-filled screeds much easier to churn out than thoughtful explorations of good or mostly good or at least interesting books, but that`s probably not the point; at least, I don`t want it to be my point.

It may seem this means I`ll read even more narrowly than I already do–which, I think, is shamefully narrow. But I think this resolution will have the opposite effect because (I hope) I`ll be more likely to take risks knowing I don`t need to commit to anything.

Maybe I`ll even try Margaret Atwood again.

16 Comments Add yours

  1. This is admirably non-neurotic. It is curious how for some people (like me, too), this takes conscious effort.

    On the other hand, there are lots of boring, irritating, and enraging books that are worth reading. There are many kinds of worth.

  2. Colleen says:

    There are, indeed, many kinds of worth but I think they’re all mostly individual…Irritating and enraging are perhaps okay if other interests counter-balance them. I found parts of Swann’s Way irritating but the rest of it was so compelling that it wasn’t fatal.

  3. heidenkind says:

    Noooooo, not Margaret Atwood!

    1. Colleen says:

      I thought liking Margaret Atwood was a requirement for working at Book Riot. šŸ˜‰

      1. heidenkind says:

        They didn’t ask and I didn’t say anything. šŸ˜‰

  4. Is reading narrowly such a bad thing? I accept that my interests and inclinations book wise probably are quite narrow but I feel what I lose in breadth of knowledge might eventually be made up for in depth and meanwhile I’d much rather spend my time reading books that work for me.

    1. Colleen says:

      Of course it’s not bad, if that’s what you want–I want to read less narrowly than I do, that’s all. I wasn’t trying to comment on general principles.

  5. AJ says:

    So much good sense in this post. No need to spend time with books that bore or annoy, when there is such an abundance of great writing out there. I know I’ve become a curmudgeon, but with only a few reading decades left, I’ve returned to the classics and non-fiction (history, biography, essays) because they reward the effort. I make a few exceptions for modern novels that come highly recommended from friends, reviewers, and certain bloggers. McEwan’s appeal has always escaped me …

    1. Colleen says:

      I enjoyed On Chesil Beach very much when I read it, but I have a sneaking suspicion the experience wouldn’t be repeated if I went back to it now.

      I probably do want to stick close to the classics, but for me that’s mostly been fiction–I know almost nothing about essays, for example, and am hoping to change that. It’s hard to know where to begin though, so I’m starting with MFK Fisher. šŸ™‚

  6. Kinna says:

    Good for you! I still suffer from the need to finish every book that I’ve started reading even if I have to suffer through it. I will get there!

    1. Colleen says:

      It really is hard to get there, isn’t it? I wish I knew where the guilt of it all comes from, then it might be easier to dismantle–I was just lucky to have it mysteriously fall away (although contemplating the real fact of middle age might have helped).

  7. Thomas says:

    I do envy your will power. I have a terrible weakness for mystery novels: if I start one, I must finish it, usually in one sitting, no matter how bad it is. I can’t tell you how much I’ve hated myself at some moments. This is likely due to the fact that there are far more bad mystery novels written than fine ones,

    1. Colleen says:

      I’m guessing that’s true of most genres…but, I understand. I’ve read some books through which I should have quit early on that made me feel just filthy. Or infected. Uggg.

  8. Colleen says:

    Heidenkind: That seems prudent. šŸ˜‰

  9. Stefanie says:

    Congratulations! I used to feel like I had to finish every book no matter how much I hatted it but about ten years ago something snapped and I decided that was just crazy. Even after that it took me a very long time to be able to abandon a book and not feel guilty about it.

    1. Colleen says:

      It is a hard mindset/habit to break out of. Personally, looking down the barrel of middle age makes me want to prioritize like mad and be ruthless in the face of mush.

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