When to Abandon a Book

For a bibliophile, the number of books I read a year is relatively modest averaging somewhere in the 45-60 bpy (books per year) range. But the number of books I’ve started and abandoned in a year often rival the books I’ve finished. Sometimes by a ratio of 1:3. Many articles about reading more include a bullet point to the effect of stop reading books that don’t work for you. Way ahead of them.

Before the advent of Goodreads I kept a small notebook for listing all of my books-to-be-read. As I watched that list expand and contract over time, it became necessary to abandon books that did not draw me back to them to find out who did it, if the protagonist would recover, if the secrets of life would be found.

Everyone has their own signatures for boredom or dutifulness. I have tried to power through texts that I find boring out of a sense of duty. Maybe it’s considered a masterpiece, or I want to be able to say I’ve read it, or someone I admire spoke well of it. Do not underestimate peer pressure to read books that don’t fit you. Even worse if you regularly talk to the person who recommended it to you.

It is time to abandon the book when…

You have been avoiding reading because you feel like you have to read THAT book first. Avoidance is a pretty good indicator that you don’t like what you are reading, and you don’t find it compelling. It’s also an indicator that the book is a chore or a punishment. If you feel guilty about reading something else instead of the prize winner, the bestseller, or the masterpiece, then pull the bookmark and move on.

Know first who you are and read accordingly, to paraphrase Epictetus. Have you enjoyed any of the five historical fiction novels that your book club has picked? Do you enjoy biographies that run upwards of 500 pages? Do space battles make you yawn? Does magical realism make you roll your eyes? If you answered yes, then don’t try to talk yourself into finishing something you know you already dislike. I highly recommend branching into new genres, trying new authors, new forms, new subjects, but when you know you have an allergic reaction to certain ideas, characters, or tropes, don’t keep trying them.

You are trying to talk yourself into continuing with a book. When you are enjoying a meal or a movie, you don’t have to talk yourself into staying and finishing it. Same with books. Imagine you are at a restaurant that you thought would be good, but you’re in the middle of the meal and just not sure about how the deconstructed Caprese salad tastes. Would you look up the restaurant’s reviews and see what other diners had to say in order to make a decision about your food in medias res? I don’t know you, but probably not. If you aren’t enjoying the book, and the spell is broken enough that you are talking yourself into sticking with it, you are done with that book for now.

To find out what your own book abandonment signs are pay attention to your self-talk, remember your established likes and dislikes, and notice when you avoid reading. You are the final arbiter of your own taste, and no one needs to waste time reading something that isn’t compelling to them.

For every book you quit because it isn’t working for you, you make room for yourself to discover engrossing worlds, riveting characters, and new favorites.

On the Passing of Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver was the first person who told me I did not have to be good.

Using one-syllable words, she devastated and reconstructed me.

She told me and so many other young women that goodness was not a prerequisite for having a place in the world. Guilt and shame were not passports to personal worth.

She set many of us free when she slipped that smooth stone into our pockets: You do not have to be good.

The Book Buffet

For micro-post Wednesday enjoy the reading buffet I set up in my living room. Magazines, library books, an assortment of bookmarks, and an apple cider candle for ambience.

The vacuum cleaner in the background serves as memento mori: someday you must clean.

The Bookstore That Got Me Out of Accounting

Writers can’t stop talking about bookstores, and I am no exception. Today I am writing this in the downtown Denver location of The Tattered Cover Bookstore. The very same bookstore that I passed every weekday morning on my walk from Union Station to a corporate job. Stopping in at the bookstore before work was my nod to arts and creativity, a chance to breathe before the day rushed in. On paydays, I bought a stack of two or three books as my reward for keeping myself emotionally together in a work environment that caused me great stress and anxiety.

If I had 10 or 15 minutes to spare, I went through the heavy wooden doors on the east side. A quarter of an hour to put off the crushing responsibility I felt at my desk for babysitting the money of rich people. Reading gave me escape routes from work and family stress, but it also kept me in mind of those first thoughts of writing for a living. It took bravery to put that dream to rest while I gathered confidence and experience. Then it took another turn of bravery to quit the corporate world and get to work writing.

One Friday, I bought a beautiful copy of Emma (Austen) and the 50th-anniversary edition of The Master and Margarita (Bulgakov) with the art nouveau cover. I lugged them to the cubicle quad that I shared with Sales. They stayed on my desk for the day. Reminders that I was made of more than balance sheets, payroll deadlines, and catching the train.

I remember other just-bought books on my desk serving as talismans to keep my soul from being eaten up by finance. A few lines from Cat’s Eye (Atwood) sustained me through the headache of payroll. An essay from the Best American Science Writing collection kept me sane while deciphering an account that had not been maintained for two months when the accounting manager left. Caitlin Doughty’s essays about searching for the Good Death gave me perspective and watered the seeds of doubt that I had about continuing another decade of the work I was doing.

The bookstore on the corner of 16th Street and Wynkoop provided a testament to the life available to an artist. A testament that I needed desperately at the time. I still visit the Tattered Cover, still browse the shelves. Sometimes for 20 minutes, sometimes hours. And in those visits, I appreciate all over again what a bookstore can mean to someone who is looking for a sign.

Notable Reads of 2018: Micro Book Reviews

This list does not include every book that I enjoyed this year, but it includes the ones that I found unique, challenging, and full of good questions.

From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty – When searching for the Good Death, anything beats traditional American death rituals.

The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt – Short stories where everyone has a secret, and that secret is usually that they can turn into an animal.

The Power by Naomi Alderman – If women had the ability to run the world through force, would they run it any better than men?

Vacationland by John Hodgman – It’s E. B. White. He’s talking about E. B. White.

Relief Map by Rosalie Knecht – The police won’t let anyone in the town leave (no phone or electricity) until a fugitive is found.

Plum Rains by Andromeda Romano-Lax – A future Japan that mixes questions about immigration, war crimes, fertility, and artificial intelligence exquisitely.

Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht – Is Vera Kelly a spy? Is she in 1950s Argentina? Is she a lesbian? Is she a smart cookie? Yes.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh – It’s a lot harder and also a lot easier than you would expect to sleep through an entire year.

Nothing Good Can Come From This by Kristi Coulter – Drinking keeps women from realizing their full potential, and alcohol is everywhere. Sobriety opens up new avenues.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee – Pain becomes story becomes myth becomes novel.

Severance by Ling Ma – If the fever takes hold of you, you lose yourself, becoming stuck in mindless routines. Hell in an office building.

The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling – Daphne disappears off the grid with her toddler, trying to decide whether or not to join her husband in Turkey.

What were your notable reads for the year? Please share in the comments!

Moratorium

IMG_20181215_150709450I’ve decided to refrain from buying books during Q1 of 2019. And what do you do before the moratorium sets in for January through March? Buy as many books as possible, of course!

Seen here: The Best American Travel Writing 2018 edited by Cheryl Strayed, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee, and The Best American Food Writing 2018 edited by Ruth Reichl.

Books purchased at The Tattered Cover on Colfax.

Picture location at Hooked on Colfax.