Thursday, July 7, 2016
Editor's Notes #19: What Makes You Stop Reading a Book? Part 1 of 2
I don't know that I was ever formally taught this, but for most of my life, I believed if I started a book, I had to finish it. No one ever sat me down and said, "Wash your hands before eating, make your bed when you get out of it, and finish every book you start," so I'm not sure where I came up with this. (For the record, I do wash my hands regularly, though the bed-making is hit or miss, depending on whether I'm the last one awake. But . . . back to the book stuff.)
Perhaps it was easier back in the day when there were fewer books available for me to read. After all, there was no such thing as a digital book—or even a personal computer, for that matter—when I was growing up, so any books I read, I either owned or borrowed from the library.
My mother recently reminded me of something I'd said when I was very young: I was afraid of someday running out of books to read. She used to take us to the library on a regular schedule, since it was also one of her favorite places to visit, and on one particular visit, I remarked at how sad I was while looking for books because I was reading them all at such a rapid rate, I was convinced that very soon there would be no more. Our town library was pretty small, and I plowed through the children's selection in short order, followed by the juvenile fiction a few years later. By the time I moved beyond that, I had no worries about a lack of reading material.
The good thing about "those days" was that I read and reread so many favorites. I can recall certain portions verbatim, or remember where I was when reading a particular book. Much like a certain perfume can take someone back to a place or time, I can't think of Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass without picturing my large, annotated hardcover (complete with super-hip 1970s artwork) . . . a gift from a favorite aunt for my 8th birthday, along with Hans Brinker in the same format. I still have both of them, and in fact picked up similar copies of Around the World in Eighty Days, Treasure Island, and Call of the Wild at an old bookstore about ten years ago, simply because it brought back all those memories in a rush.
In more recent years, the sheer quantity of books available online caused a sort of overload for me when I first got a Kindle. All of a sudden I could have just about every classic at my fingertips, and most of them were free. I began to browse the "Top 100 Free" category with regularity and consumed fresh material at a rapid pace, finding new authors I enjoyed. However, along with those good authors came some clunkers. A LOT of clunkers. Apparently, "Top 100" means "most downloaded" and not necessarily "top quality."
It was then that I discovered my time was more valuable than I'd realized. I'm the person who can't be bothered to waste seven minutes watching a news video because I'd rather read the transcript of it in less than sixty seconds, and yet here I was, committed to finishing an awful book that was poorly written, with the (vain) hope that it would somehow get better before the final page. That was bad enough, but when I found myself doing this for one book after another, after another, after . . . you get the idea . . . I knew I'd have to change my "finish or die" policy before it became "finish and want to die."
Since those early, heady days of "ALL the books at my fingertips!" and the resultant letdown as I read a plethora of bad ones, I've come up with a few general guidelines that help me to know when to keep chugging along and when to just chuck it and never look back. These guidelines have helped me with my editing as well, allowing me to give better advice to the authors I work with.
I'll share those with you in Part 2 next time.