The Rough Side of Reading

11 Jul

Committing to a life of reading isn’t easy guys, it’s hard work, long hours, it can be disappointing and for roughly one Unity Books customer in every hundred, it’s also terrifying.

Brooklyn Art Library - taken from Bookshelf Porn Blogsite

These readers face grave concerns regarding the plausibility (the futility really) of what they’ve undertaken – what they’ve gone and awakened. Similar, I imagine, to stamp collecting or any other type of collecting, a ‘reader’ faces this insurmountable problem: they love to read but there are, in the world, thousands upon thousands of books considered worth reading (some cruel taskmasters even classify their lists as  ‘required’) but here’s the kicker, there are only so many readable hours in a day and more than that there’s only a limited number of hours in every life.  All told, even when calculated optimistically, they aren’t nearly enough hours in a life to read all the good books in the world or find and collect all the finest stamps.
An avid reader has to face up to this, like coming to terms with mortality all over again. I picture an overly dramatic scene in a film where a teenage girl (and serious reader)  accidentally cuts her finger on a page in her book and as she bleeds, her mortal blood slowly dripping like a ticking clock, she looks up at her huge bookshelf and then back at the blood and thinks ‘the two conspire against me!’

We constantly get people into the shop worried about this exact problem, the ‘Me vs All The Good Books in the World’ equation. Not just at Unity Books but at other stores I’ve worked though notably not at Whitcoulls, my first ever job (do please excuse me). Those concerned choose a book, bring it to the counter and then become struck by something like menu envy or buyers remorse or some kind of strange bookish lust and they pause to look around the store at all the other books that could have been in the position  the chosen book now sits. Some are more confident than others and worked hard to find even one book they wanted to buy; for them it’s not a big deal. But for the majority it’s like being forced to choose which child you love more. And like parents do, they console themselves by saying that they love all books equally and they’ll find the time to read them all, next time they’ll get Cultural Amnesia because they’d promised to read One Day after they’d finished reading Catch 22. But they know that this ideal will eventually fail them because of all the good books amassing as they speak, as they finish that exact sentence 15 more wonderful books have just been published, 4 more reviewed favourably in the NY Review of Books and they know they will never catch up.

And that is why the advice given to me 2 years ago by a work colleague has proved invaluable, hard to swallow at first, but really pretty incorruptible. Do not finish bad books. There. I said it. Read it again if you need, it’s hard to believe for some on the first reading, but if they aren’t words of wisdom then I don’t know what are.
Yes there can be glory in agony and redemption in patience but the fact remains: there are more good books in this world than you have time and to waste what little time you do have reading shit books cannot be good for your mind. The most common rebuttal to this of course is ‘but how do you know? It might get better.’
Actually I was talking to a customer about this today and we both agreed: if a book takes 100 pages to get good then it doesn’t deserve our praise. The author might pull it together half way through but what of those first 100 pages? Why should we bare the brunt of bad editing or poor execution – 100 pages? That’s at least an hour if not three of your life. Gone. Finishing a bad book is like awarding an author for trying  rather than for achieving. Kind, but costly.

Publishers know this, its common wisdom that a book has to grab you from the first line. But you wouldn’t believe the number of people out there, right now, as you read these very words, struggling with some poorly realised novel that someone recommended they must read.
Put it down.
Try again.
Move on and keep moving because the glory and the boundless natural high you get from finding and reading a really great book is something worth hunting down, worth fighting for. Don’t waste your time wishing books are what they’re not and go find the few but still largely numbered wonders of the book world. And don’t despair if you hit a rough patch, because they just keep coming.

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One Response to “The Rough Side of Reading”

  1. Mark Rickerby July 11, 2011 at 5:15 pm #

    Another way of looking it is that one shouldn’t feel obliged to finish any book. It was once suggested to me that we should treat books like a good wine or whiskey – we can appreciate and enjoy the fine qualities without feeling we must drink the entire bottle all at once.

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