Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Book Guilt

Let's Active--"The Book Of Last Pages" (mp3)

Perhaps, unintentionally and in honor of going back to school, Billy has kicked off a kind of "Reading Week" on BOTG. His piece yesterday got me thinking about reading, especially in light of this strange occurrence: I finished two books yesterday.

Now, I'll acknowledge that I'm a pretty fast reader who has been known to skim though setting details that bore him, but yesterday wasn't about speed. It was about two different journeys converging.

In the morning, I fnished Zeitoun, the straightforward account of a Muslim-American painter and builder who stayed in New Orleans during Katrina, helping people and animals until he disappears into government bureaucracy and indifference, while his family and friends track him down. My daughter, who doesn't read much, had been required to read this book last summer and declared it her favorite book, so much so that we took her and several friends down to New Orleans at the end of the summer to find Zeitoun's house, which we did (he wasn't home). Last week, when we returned, I found one of his painting signs lying in a gutter outside of Commander's Palace (it now hangs in my daughter's English teacher's classroom), and I thought, okay, I probably need to read this book. The book is impossible to put down. I read it in about three days.

In the evening, I finished The Passage, a highly-regarded literary "vampire" novel (government program gone bad) I had purchased last summer with a gift certificate and which I had been slogging through at a pace of about 10-15 pages a night for several months.

You know how you stick with some books just to earn a "badge of honor?" Well, The Passage was one of those for me. I don't necessarily blame the book, since my reading pattern of a few pages until I fell asleep doesn't lend itself to cohesion or coherence in the mind of the reader, but I also never fully connected with the characters, and so the last 300 pages became about finding out what happens to conclude the 750 page, 100-year epic. I'm not sorry I read the book, but it didn't "wow" me in the ways I expected, drawing as it does too much on The Stand, Avatar, The Road, 28 Days Later, The Handmaid's Tale and a host of other influences. But, darn it, I was going to finish it.

I think most of us deal with some level of "book guilt," that notion that you are somehow a failure if you don't finish a book that you've started. My wife suffers excessively; I suffer selectively. I mean, let's face it, regardless of how well-reviewed or how classic they might be, some books just plain suck and are not worth the time that they demand. But once we start, we tend to let them dictate the terms of our relationship, we being mere readers, while they are published books.

They are like a meal we've ordered in a restaurant. We tend to eat it, if for no other reason than we've paid for it. I think it's worth realizing, though, that this guilt, like any other guilt, is entirely of our own creation, and need not be served. Just because I paid well over $20 for The Passage in hardcover, that should not create any more obligation than Zeitoun, which cost me $5.46 on the Kindle. The latter was the more pleasurable reading experience.

I mean, you don't keep listening to a crappy CD just because you blew $20 on it, do you? You might give it a few more tries, but you will give up on it. Same thing if someone hands you a burned CD that they say is their favorite by a band you've never heard of, but you can't get into. You'll find one song that you can mention to your friend by name, and then move on.

Finishing The Passage created nothing in me more than a sense of freedom. I had, for whatever reason, committed to it, and now I've finished it. Free to move on to other projects.

And so, last night, I had a third reading experience, as I started Matterhorn, the epic novel of Vietnam that came out last year that took the author 30 years to write. A friend had just walked into my office and handed it to me without saying much. He wanted me to start it right away, but I had other obligations at the time. But last night, within 50 pages, I was completely entranced by Matterhorn, and so right now, I am in my favorite reading position--at the start of a good book, with a few other good-looking ones lined up.

I've got Keith Richard's Life waiting on deck (a Christmas present to myself), and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a Kindle book I started and liked, but got distracted from. It's a book I want to read and look forward to returning to, probably even starting over. No guilt, though.

1 comment:

Brahm (alfred lives here) said...

Ooh, that Dave Eggers one sounds great, didnt even know he had a new one out. Gonna Kindle it now!