Dawn of the Unread

by F.

I read somewhere that dog owners and cat owners react quite differently to their pets’ indiscretions. Dog owners blame the dog. Cat owners blame themselves.

I thought of this today when I failed to finish yet another novel, a mass-market techno-thriller (or something) called Runaway Heart by Stephen J. Cannell. I got to page 14 before the cliches started to accrete. Luckily, I checked it out from the library. But still. I feel a sense of failure when I don’t finish a book.

Most people I know blame the author. “That book is so poorly written,” they’ll say, as if that means anything.

“What do you mean by ‘poorly written’?” I often ask.
“I just—I couldn’t get into it,” they say.
“But was that the author’s fault?”
“Sure. It wasn’t well written.”

I don’t blame the author. Usually. I blame myself. I consider the book as a kind of magical idol which I’ve failed to propitiate. It must have been me—I wasn’t concentrating hard enough, or something. And, yes, I’m a cat owner, too.

I feel somewhat less guilty about my reading failures after hearing Nancy Pearl on the radio. Pearl is former the Seattle LIbrarian and author of Book Lust, which is a collection of book titles she suggests, grouped by subject. The interviewer on the radio asked Pearl if she usually finished books she started. I was shocked to learn that she doesn’t. She said that she usually knows within the first 15 pages or so whether it’s a book she wants to continue reading. If it doesn’t grab her in the first 15, it’s outathere.

I like that approach. After all, there are a lot of stories out there to read. Scanning around the room, which is lined with bookshelves, I see some of the following unreads:

  • JR by William Gaddis. I really wanted to like this book. It made me feel clever to read it, to actually be able to understand it. But after the first scene with the lawyer and the two old women, I lost the thread of plot (if there was one) and was out. I have no idea why Gaddis won a MacArthur grant.
  • Gravity’s Rainbow by Pynchon. I think I read five pages. Even that much was a struggle.
  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I read to page twelve before coming to the conclusion that the author was a dick. Reminded me of a lot of guys I was in Philosophy school with. I know at least 10 people who could sit down and write a book indistinguishable from this one. (I’m not one of the ten).

That all sounds sort of highbrow. But I don’t finish low brow books, either:

  • Ecstasy by Irving Welsh. I liked that movie Trainspotting, so I thought I might like his writing. I read about twenty pages.
  • Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg. I wanted to like this. But the protagonist was too much of a cliche. Reading Euclid’s Elements? Come on. I got to page 10.
  • The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly. Five pages. Too much voice over for my liking.

And that’s just the beginning.

So now, taking my cue from Nancy Pearl, I’m not going to worry if my Library of the Unread grows. Authors have 15 pages to grab me. If not, that’s it. They get shitcanned. Henry James? You have no hope. Ulysses? Don’t even get it near me. Salman Rushdie? Forget about it.

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