Monday, March 3, 2014

A Reader's State of Mind

There aren't very many books I'll read a second time, but the few I've opted to re-read seldom disappoint. Only rarely do I ask myself, "What was I thinking?" when that second read does disappoint.

Even more rare is the book I'll give a second chance when the first attempt fell flat. I did that recently, and I blush to tell you the title. It was Marilynne Robinson's debut novel, Housekeeping. Housekeeping won several prestigious awards, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Marilyn Robinson's second novel, Gilead, did win the Pulitzer.

So what was my problem the first time I attempted to read Housekeeping? I'd heard so many great things about the novel from all the writers I interact with, but I just couldn't get into it. Still, I held onto it, thinking someday I'll give it another try. Well that "someday" came a few weeks ago, and from the opening page I was hooked, and asked myself countless times throughout the reading, "What on earth did I miss that first time?" The answer: "I have no idea."

I've tried to evaluate my state of mind when I made that first attempt three years ago, to see if there are clues as to why I didn't like it then, but there's not enough that's different in my life from then 'til now to explain it. I'm just glad I did give it a second chance, because I really liked the story. Or at least I very much liked the writing. The story certainly had its dark side, but there was enough good about the writing that I was willing to stay with it for the duration . . . this time. And who knows, maybe the bottom line is that the dark side of the story was too uncomfortable for me three years ago.

The point is, it's not very often a reader will give a writer a second chance when we fail to grab them the first time around. When I'm looking for a book to read/purchase, I'll read two, maybe three paragraphs of the opening page at the most, and if I'm not intrigued enough to keep reading at that point, I put that book down and go on to the next. Strong openings, particularly opening sentences, are so important. As you write and edit your opening pages, keep that in mind. We have precious few seconds to hook a reader, and even less to hook an agent or editor. Hone that opening page to the sharpest precision, but the subsequent writing must be equally enticing to keep the reader engaged. Keep your writing tight, your characters engaging, your story on target, each scene important, or the reader will be on to the next book on her list.

Is there a book you've given a second chance, and wondered what you missed the first time around? Or if you've once given up on a book, is that it, no second chance?


V. Gingerich said...

I'm a rereader, with a long list of favorites I've devoured a dozen times.

I read Madeleine L'Engle as a kid and didn't like it very much. I have every intention to try her writing again, and I'm guessing I'll love it, this time around.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

The first time I read "The Grapes of Wrath", I didn't know what to think of it. I wasn't ready for the intensity with which Steinbeck wrote. I was too young to understand. I read it a few years later and it resonated.

I'm a re-reader, often finding that it affords a special comfort or familiarity. However, if I find absolutely nothing that draws me in a book, regardless of how highly praised it is, I won't read it again. I already spent time on it and my reading time is valuable. I will, however, return to a book that makes me wonder, even if it isn't my favorite. Wonder is essential.

Megan Sayer said...

Interesting thoughts here Sharon, although I'm much more inclined to agree with your Oscar Wilde quote here than with you. I'm your polar opposite when it comes to books it seems: I never judge them by their openings, but by the prose I find when I crack open the middle (I know full well that those opening pages can be well over-worked, and it's not always representative of the writer's true form). Similarly, if I find a book I love I'll reread it a dozen times, and each time find something fresh.
Trouble is with rereading though it does make me less interested in searching out new books, or new authors, which is definitely a negative. I rely a lot on recommendations from friends, especially friends whom I know have similar tastes to mine. I"m sure there are a lot of amazing books I'm missing out can only hope and dream that Heaven has a library.

Sharon K. Souza said...

V: Our own Katy is a huge fan of Madeleine L'Engle, though I admit red-faced that I've never read her. I will, though, I will.

Susie: Here's another embarrassing admission: I've never read Grapes of Wrath either. What is wrong with me?!

Megan: Can you hear me screeching? I would Never Ever open a book and read the middle, not a page, not a paragraph, not a sentence. There are times I even cover an upcoming paragraph lest I see something too soon. Isn't it funny how different, and yet how much alike we can be? Deanne won't even read the back cover copy. She wants to go into a book knowing absolutely nothing!

Cherry Odelberg said...

What a conversation! Megan, I too, find that re-reading all my favorites makes me less interested in searching out new reading material.
The two books I gave a second chance weren't novels - they were serious books by C.S. Lewis. I just wasn't ready for them the first time. Several women of my acquaintance hated Pride and Prejudice because they had to read it in college. Revisiting it later turned out to be enjoyable.
And last, but not least, I confess I sometimes read a book totally out of sequence. As I go to put it away at night and a page falls open a few chapters ahead...then, an hour later.....and the next night I have to catch up the parts I missed.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Girls, girls, girls! My mouth is stuck open. We need lessons on how to read a book!

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I'm with Deanne. I don't read anything about the book if I can help it. I love going in blind.

It hurts me when people read the last page first.

Latayne C Scott said...

Oh, I've said this before, but it's my classic example. I took a college class on F. Scott Fitzgerald and hated it. The prof didn't teach The Great Gatsby because he assumed everyone had read it. I read it anyway and hated it too.

Then two years or so ago I listened to it on audiobook and fell apart emotionally at the end. It was so beautiful I cried and cried.

What was I thinking the first time? I was 29. I was an idiot.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Oh, Latayne, you've never been an idiot. Never!