Monday, January 21, 2013

When to Put Down a Book, the 'On the Beach' edition

Readers have two very important decisions to make: what books to read and what books to stop reading. What compels us to do either?

I used to read anything because I love books. I would drudge through the worst book because I wanted to give the author the benefit of the doubt. What if it got good and I didn't know it?

Then I picked up Water for Elephants. It had sat on my shelf for a year as I hemmed and hawed. "It's a tough read for animal lovers," I heard. "I don't know if you can finish it."

Then I read the first page. And kept reading. When I came up for air — thankfully at a decent hour of the evening — I called my friend Carole. She got no further than "Hel—"

"Oh, Carole, why didn't you tell me?"

I could feel her smile emanating from the other end of the phone. "I did."

That night, I made myself a promise: if a book didn't grab me, I would give myself permission to set it aside, possibly forever. I also wouldn't start a book that readers described with, "Once you get past the first 50 pages..."

I also promised myself I'd put down a book at any moment without regret — which I did last night.

Neville Shute's novel On the Beach has an interesting premise: in 1963, a nuclear war wiped out most of the planet. Australia, however, was not yet affected, and the novel introduces us to the people who are living with the understanding that a radioactive cloud will reach them in six months.

Wow, right?

Actually, On the Beach was a little boring. Shute thinks up good stories, but he tells them like an engineer. He's more fascinated with the technology than the people — and he overlooks some really incredible people in his books. I finished A Town Like Alice because I wanted to know what happened to Jean — and I nearly did that with On the Beach.

Until the author referred to a small girl child as "it."

I returned it to the library. I read the rest of the synopsis on Wikipedia, which was good enough for me. If the author doesn't respect his characters enough to use the proper pronoun, I won't invest any more of my time in her or his books.

Then there was Wild, a memoir hailed by people throughout the publishing and reading world as one of the best books of the year. My friend Kathy said she enjoyed it, the writing was great, but thought it may be a tough read for me.

Usually I follow Kathy's advice; she has an uncanny understanding of books and my psyche. And yet — I had to test it out. I borrowed it from the library, planning to finish it immediately after On the Beach. When the opportunity presented itself more quickly than I had planned, I launched into the book.

It was the howling that stopped me. Oh, and the surgical gloves filled with ice. I had been struggling with her suffering mother but thought there would be a noble, or at least self-expanding experience along the way. I thought I could handle it.

I wasn't. I powered down my Kindle and found something, anything else to read to put me to sleep. Anything but that. Kathy was right: the writing was amazing, but I couldn't take any more of Strayed's life — and apparently there was a lot more to come along the Pacific Coast Trail. I could live without it.

What has prompted you to put down a book?

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