Monday, September 21, 2009

Abandoning Ship on Reading a Novel

I once asked Andy McGuire, who at that time was editing Latter-day Cipher, for a book recommendation. He told me that I should read P. D. James because she wrote literary mysteries; and also because she was a Christian.

So I selected a James novel, Original Sin, for airplane reading since I am traveling to present seminars a lot recently (I’ve been on three trips in the last three weeks.) I say airplane reading because of those rules against portable electronics – you can’t use a computer, e-reader or even audiobook player unless a plane is over 10,000 feet in altitude. So it’s low-tech reading for those of us who want to continue reading while the airplane attendants describe how to use your seat cushion for a flotation device and then take your drink orders.

On the second leg of my trip to Montana I grew so impatient with the book that I stuffed it down into the seatback pocket along with the airsickness bag. I was going to leave it on the plane. Too many characters, I thought, action too slow; and though there were some delicious murders and some yummy descriptions, the whole thing seemed pedantic.

But someone I respected had recommended this book, and so I trudged on. Little by little the plot began to both thicken and engage.

By the time I neared the denouement, I was re-reading each paragraph, then going back and re-reading the last chapters. It was like a dessert whose last bite I did not want to take – instead I scraped around the dish, licked the spoon, smelled the last wafting aromas, searched between my teeth for morsels before finishing it off.

It was one of the most memorable climactic scenes I have ever read. I was so glad I gave the book a chance. It deserves every accolade it has received.

Have you ever been tempted to dump a book that you nonetheless went ahead to finish? What made you want to abandon it? What kept you reading? Are you glad you did? Why?


Nicole said...

I'm one of those "trudge on to the end even if I hate the thing" readers. I want to give the author a chance to redeem what I'm not liking, but your experience has never happened to me. If I hate the book up to the middle, no redemption comes forth at the end. I don't care if a book starts slow, etc. What I can rarely tolerate is characters I don't like--that arouse no sympathy, no empathy. And when I consider a book badly written (subjective to be sure), it's tougher to like a story.

Latayne C Scott said...

I'm wondering if this experience says less about the books I read than it says about who I have become as a reader. I'm accustomed to short spurts -- reading a bit before bed, watching television shows that I've taped but rarely watch live, and of course Twitter and Facebook: have I become more impatient?

I can say that I only "allow" myself to read at length when there's a reason to do so. I feel such pressure to maintain my "end of the bargain" with my publishers so that I am available if not constantly visible in cyberspace, and of course I am writing a book right now, too.

But are those just excuses that justify my impatience? I wonder.

Adam Gonnerman said...

Friends told me several months ago that I really needed to read "Dune." I managed to get a few chapters in, hating every page. It's on the shelf now. Maybe someday I'll force myself to trudge on through it.

Nicole said...

Latayne, who can say if you're an impatient reader? Maybe you are because you "have" to be, but I think sometimes writers are influenced too much by current "trends" in what publishers expect from them, what they want to succeed in the market place, and sometimes from their limited direct association from real readers--not writers. (You might/might not like tomorrow's post over at Into the Fire. You know me--sometimes my opinions get under the professional world's skin. Can't help it. JMOs, you know?)

Whoever you are as a writer, try not to let it influence too much who you are as a reader. Otherwise, it can be tough to enjoy a lot of novels. That "critique spirit" gets engaged and won't let go.

Anonymous said...

I'm the type to finish a book when I start one, so I try to be discerning with the books I select to read. I can't remember not finishing a book that I started, even when it turned out to be disappointing -- until the past few months. There have been 2 or 3that I haven't finished. I tried to trudge my way through, even gave one novel 3 tries. But I just couldn't make myself do it. For one thing, my reading time is more limited now and I don't want to waste the time I have. For another, I decided no one's holding a gun to my head, ya know? I can put up with almost any storyline if the characters engage me and if the writing isn't bland or cliche. Once in a while I come across a novel that sings, and oh, how I love that.

word verification: eurism -- as opposed to myism.

Nicole, I look forward to reading your post tomorrow. I'm writing myself a note.

Melinda Walker said...

I was really glad I finished The Shack because of the message. I had to put it down for awhile because of the violence to the child (that's just me), but the craft also made it difficult to get through. I read Anna Karenina with Ophrah a few years ago & don't think I could have finished, if I hadn't felt like lots of women were soldiering through, too. The theme was really masterfully executed, though, (Duh!)but it did require the ending to come together.

Now that time is shorter, I have to have a compelling reason to finish a book that doesn't grab me in 50 pages or so.

Kathleen Popa said...

I always mean to finish novels once I've started reading. I have such good intentions. But... life, you know?

Still, life seldom gets in the way of books I really love - it's more apt to be the other way around.

I'm sure I've missed some great stories because I quit reading. The Poisonwood Bible lost me. So did The Red Tent, and The Time Travelor's Wife. People tell me, "Oh, you should try again, they're really good." So I download the audio-book and listen while I clean house. I've got Time Traveler all queued up and ready for when I finish listening to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Which, by the way, is just wonderful, so far.

Unknown said...

Truthfully? I toss a book aside if I'm not loving it.
I'm going to sound like a weirdo - but for me fiction is like a relationship. I invest my time, attention, and affection into the books I read.
Many of the books I didn't finish aren't "bad books" or "badly written" - they just weren't for me. It's intensely personal stuff for me.

Life is busy (as we all know) and at this point I'm not inclined to sit too long with a book that doesn't sing to me.

I've noticed though, that I go in cycles where certain types of books hold great appeal, then I shift my attentions to another sort of book. So I don't get rid of the books I don't finish - I may yet find a time when they will grip me.

I'm writing a novel right now, so I don't read long fiction when I'm writing long fiction. I stick to poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction until I'm finished my novel.

Dr. Shades said...

I never, ever don't finish a book. If I start it, I finish it, no matter what.

Anonymous said...

Adam and Dr. Shades: Hi, guys! You are so brave posting her amongst so many wimmenfolk. I am so glad to have your insights. Dr. Shades, (for the benefit of other readers, I'll have to say that the gender of your avatar is a smokescreen, your photos show you to be definitely the manly type) you have more iron will than I'll ever have to finish every book you start! And Adam, I appreciate your opinions about books. If it's any help, I thumbed through Dune and decided I shouldn't even start it.

Nicole gave some good advice about laying down the blue pencil when reading. Wish I could actually do that.

Sharon and Kathleen, you're expressing many of the feelings I have. I "know" I'm supposed to appreciate something, and it's hard for me to lay down a book that others have said such good things about. I wish I had Bonnie's hard-nosed ability.

And I have to say that I think every editor I've ever talked to won't "stick around" to see if a book gets better.

Melinda, I bought the Shack. I just don't know if I have the courage to pick it up and start it. Maybe later.

Thank you ALL for the great comments!

Dr. Shades said...

The woman in my avatar is Yasuko Sawaguchi, my favorite Japanese celebrity. When I first saw a picture of her, back when I was a Mormon missionary 19 years ago, I was dumb-struck in love. See:

Anonymous said...

Dr. Shades, that IS a beautiful woman. Does that mean I can use a young Rutger Hauer (in LadyHawke) as my avatar? :)

Michelle Ule said...

Have never made it through "David Copperfield," no matter how many times people tell me how much they love it. I think I've started it five or six times; I've never made it through the movie, either.

I have so much to read that I don't finish things anymore unless I've got a reason--or I can't believe something so poorly written was published. I keep thinking it must improve . . . but I'm skimming by the end. That is not a good sign.

Glad you made it through PD James, Latayne.