Friday, September 10, 2010

On the Reading of Books, and Stopping Thereof

Like many of you, I read a fair amount of fiction. Not highbrow stuff, mostly, but one cannot live on a diet of caviar and champagne; our budgets and digestive systems need the days of mac & cheese washed down with a club soda. I mention the Steampunk books in this Journal, but a high percentage of my reading list is mysteries, and I am a huge fan of Stephen King. Despite my alarmingly bad memory, which makes me unable to retain specific pieces of information for long periods, I always have at least two books going at once, and can have three or four in progress, picking up the plot where I left off.

However, I'm not a very fast reader, and I don't have a great deal of time each day to sit and read fiction. Most of my reading is done just before retiring for the night, in bed, nightcap by my side. (Some people like to watch television at this time of night. I'm open-minded about what you do in your bedroom, though I implore you TV-watchers to be kind to your neighbors in hotel rooms as it's hard to sleep with a rerun of Seinfeld coming through the paper-thin walls.) This means that I can complete about a book per week, give or take. Under the Dome, clocking in at 1200 pages or so, took a great deal more time, as did The Passage with its mere 750+ pages.* Because I read fiction for pleasure, I don't mind long books if they retain my interest. Every once in a while, though, a book doesn't retain my interest, or never captures it in the first place. What to do then?

Some writers - and writers are almost always voracious readers - are of the opinion that their time is too valuable to waste on uninteresting books. ("Some writers" is horribly vague, I realize, and that usage is often employed by lazy journalists to make an editorial comment without finding a proper source. You'll have to take my word for it that I have read this point of view more than once though I can't remember any specific instance.** I've long taken the opposite view, which is that, having invested in the book, I should do my best to finish it.*** This has caused me to spend countless hours slogging through something I don't really want to read in order to reach a conclusion I don't really care about.

A recent case in point: I just finished The Domino Men, by Jonathan Barnes. I really enjoyed his first book, The Somnambulist, which told the story of Edward Moon, a Victorian magician who also solved crimes, and Moon's sidekick, an enormously tall mute who with an addiction to milk (like a certain diminutive Clockwinder!). The book was an entertaining send-up of Holmesian detection and the Victorian fascination with the supernatural (and the modern fascination with the Victorian fascination with the supernatural, c.f. The Prestige). As a result, I picked up Barnes' next book without hesitation, thinking it would be set in the same era, even if it was not a direct sequel. However, The Domino Men is set in present times, and is narrated by Henry Lamb, a gentle soul who finds himself in the midst of a war between a beast called Leviathan, which has been promised the city of London by Queen Victoria, and a shadowy organization called the Directorate, in which Henry's grandfather was an important operator. While I found the book to be entertaining, I wasn't as engaged by it as by its predecessor. Several times I thought about moving on to the next book, but kept slogging.

Similarly, I started Stephen Hunt's The Court of the Air, a Steampunky (actually more fantasy) tale of intrigue filled with airships, clanks, a mysterious ruling class with its own covert military organization, and underground - literally as well as figuratively - revolutionaries, but I got bogged down around page 100 and never generated the enthusiasm to pick up the book again. I'm about 90% convinced I should just give up, but my subborn streak has yet to let go of the last 10%.

I've gotten better recently about getting on with books that don't thrill me. I am willing to skim paragraphs or entire pages, slowing down to read a passage carefully only if it seems as though the passage is important to understanding the plot. This seems like cheating, but then I realize there will be no test.

I'm interested in how others deal with the less-than-enthralling books they start.

Now where did I put that nightcap?

* Can't editors do something about the scourge of barbell-weight books?

** See above for my lamentation about my poor memory.

*** Economists refer to this as the "sunk cost fallacy," as consumers or other economic actors should recognize that sunk costs are irrelevant to how to act going forward. Hey, just because I understand the fallacy doesn't mean I act rationally.

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