My husband teases me about books. The other day, after I read Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth, he said, “I think that’s the first book I’ve ever seen you read to the end.” While it was an exaggeration, there’s a kernel of truth there. I am quick to abandon books. If I can put a book down and be totally okay with never finding out how it ends, then I do exactly that. Life is too short to force myself to read all the way through a book that’s boring. My husband, on the other hand, does it all the time. He’ll complaint to me around chapter 4, but power through the whole dang thing. I’ll ask him if it ever got better and he’ll admit that no, it did not. Once a book goes downhill, it is astonishingly rare for it to rebound, so I feel good about my book abandonment.
Today’s Daily Post writing prompt, “What are you snobbish about?” felt timely as I currently have a big stack of library books at home and I’ve worked my way almost all the way through the pile. Recently, I’ve abandoned four books in quick succession. All four have gotten great reviews on Good Reads, and two are considered comedic classics. But, all four were just too easy to put down. Mainly, because of a lack of tension.
So, here’s the snobbery-ish part. I need books that have tension, conflict, plot, or someone who wants something and has to overcome obstacles to get it. For many agents/editors, they need a “hook” early on. Some only read the first two pages of a manuscript before deciding whether or not to chuck it in the trash. Two pages to hook someone doesn’t sound like much, but sometimes that’s all you need to decide to take a pass. Now, I usually give a book more leeway than that, but once I hit the point of “nope” I’m out.
Here are some books I’ve put down lately. Before you read the list, remember that this is just my taste. Feel free to disagree with my appraisal of any of the following.
- Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth. A few chapters in, and I was wondering what the point was. The narrator is sharing random recollections and when I hit the first raunchy bit I wondered if maybe things were about to get interesting, but then the next chapter was right back in to the land of the mundane and boring. Some people adore this book. Me? Pass.
- A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Some people find this book hilarious. By the time I was a couple chapters in, it was making me yawn. Reading the book made me feel like I was cornered by that socially inept guy you sometimes find at get togethers. You know, the one who corners you and rambles on with complete self-absorption until you can find a way to make your escape and hide for the remainder of the evening. There was no real tension or conflict that would make me want to read on to see how it resolves. I know the conflict picks up eventually, but by the time I got to the beginning of the main conflict, I was too irritated by the main character to continue.
- The Antiquarian by Gustavo Faverón Patriau. Lovely writing, and I was initially encouraged as the book starts off with the narrator talking about how his good friend Daniel killed his fiance. Seemed juicy. Then, the book immediately gets… intellectual and navel-gazey. A promising opener quickly followed by a rapid slow down stuffed with back flashes and artistic musings.
- An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine. This one was, by far, the most disappointing because I love Alameddine’s other work so much. The Hakawati, for instance, is a book I consider a real work of art. I had high hopes for this one, and while the writing is absolutely lovely, I got half way through and couldn’t answer the question, “What’s the plot?” The main character makes constant book allusions while reflecting on her life and that’s pretty much it. The writing is lovely, but it left me feeling like it had no direction. Half way through, my main question was “what’s the purpose of this story?” which is entirely the wrong kind of question.
The bottom line is that I need a reason to keep turning pages. I’m not asking for much, honestly, just a plot with tension and characters that are at least half way compelling. On the bright side, relying on my library rather than buying books makes it easy to take a chance on a book. When I pick up a big batch, any book I don’t get pulled into is one I can just put to the side and then I pick up the next in the stack. Any “dud” has only cost me the time it takes to hit the “nope” point. So, I can live dangerously and take home books I’m skeptical about.
Pillars of the Earth is one example. That sucker is big (almost 1,000 pages) and I was dubious about having the energy/time to tackle something so long. But, I read the first few pages, then the next few, and I rolled right on through it. While the book has its flaws, it certainly did have tension, characters to root for, and characters to hate. I don’t think it’s too much to ask, and yet I’ve had a hard time finding those things lately.