Friday, September 15, 2006

Taking the Easy Way Out

My friend Pam Varley and I were emailing this morning about our current audiobook listening, and sharing our common guilt at keeping, on Audible.com, a "wish list" of books that we plan to listen to that is composed of titles rather more challenging than the books we actually end up purchasing. On my end, the new Peter Carey novel still waits hopefully on the wish list while I merrily download yet another Donna Leon mystery. As Pam wrote, "there's probably a thesis somewhere in a comparison of Audible 'wish' lists and 'buy' lists."

I tell myself, and frequently other people, that guilt has no place in reading choices. But maybe it is part of the pleasure: reading as playing hooky? having an illicit affair? Similarly, virtue should have no greater a place in reading, either, but there's something to be said for the results of dogged determination, or going to church even though you don't feel like it, or even simply bragging rights.

Books I loved reading and books I'm glad I read. Two lists I can live with.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, you ought to try it from the other end, books you think you ought to write and books you want to write. You can always spot the books people think they ought to write by because they end up being what Robertson Davies calls masterpiecely. I think the best thing I've read in a long time is the Nick Hornby piece you linked us to. Now there's someone with his head screwed on right. What's with the new picture? It's blurry. It reminds me of Robin Williams in a Woody Allen film - I forget which one - where the character was suddenly out of focus and no one could see him clearly. Are you losing your edge?

Anonymous said...

Of course then there's also the book that is neither the book you ought to nor the one you want to write but the one you end up actually writing resulting in the forty seven lay people, two parsons and one hairdresser needed to talk you down off the roof.

Elizabeth said...

Hi. First I'd like to thank whoever said they missed me a couple of threads ago on The Glass Lake post. No "reason" I was absent, except probably the US Open--I spent so much time out there for the two weeks around Labor Day that it sort of absorbed my non-working hours.

Anyway, more than the books I'm glad I've read, what comes to mind for me is "books I claim to have read but have never actually finished." This is where I, well, excel, and two things have recently brought it to mind. Roger and I were talking about A Passage to India, and I was discussing the plot and rape implication with a degree of familiarity when I said "actually, I never finished it. Like at least half the books assigned in high school, I got a good chunk of the way into it then Walter (classmate, next door neighbor, and future lit professor) told me the rest." Meanwhile, in college, we used a trick in French class. Whoever read the assigned story would not only fill the others in on the plot, but bring up a telling anecdote from the story so that if we were called on in class we could be convincing.

I remember a long weekend spent reading, and loving, Middlemarch. But my bookgroup met that Wednesday, and I called a friend who told me what happend in the last 100 pages. Why didn't I finish a book I was enjoying (and which I had read so much of)? No clue.

I always thought it was just me. My Dad was a big reader and for years I sent him tons of history and other books from the Penguin Books free shelves. He was always talking to me about things he'd learned from them about naval history, or the Trans-Siberian Railroad, or the life of Keynes, etc.

Anyway, he died a few years ago and last year when we sold the family home. I brought a bunch of those books to my apartment, thinking they'd be interesting to take down and dip into. And I've begun to notice that an amazing number of them have a flap marking their place, or a scrap of paper torn from a phone message tucked in as a placeholder about a third of the way through.

Now I wonder, did I just inherit this tendency? To enjoy and get something out of a book and then, for some reason, move on to the next?

Ok, I know there are BIG readers and thinkers on this blog and I may well be the only poster who this applies to. I know I am currently visiting the summer home of my great friend Ann Durell, who edited and published Lloyd Alexander, Blair Lent, Marilyn Sachs, William Sleator, Ellen Raskin, etc. etc. And she isn't even familiar with the phenomenon of buying an intellectual bestseller like A Brief History of Time with the intention of reading it and only getting through the first chapter. Ann is a marvel and my great role model in many things. But I'm not worried if I don't feel like finishing a book (and don't get me started on Swann's Way or Vanity Fair, both of which I've tried many times without making it to the end). If I could keep up with my manuscript pile in a timely way, that would be accomplishment enough.

Anonymous said...

I love that, elizabeth. I like the idea of it taking hold with writers so that they only write the books a third or two thirds of the way, knowing that's all readers really read anyway, then the writers sum up the rest in a few lines with a few telling anecdotes to supply in case the readers need more for particularly probing cocktail guests.

Andy Laties said...

Back at Children's Bookstore we had a regular customer who worked for an ad agency. She'd periodically buy a stack of books for use as props in her photo shoots. How about "Books I Use As Props". (I suppose the very EXISTENCE of a GENRE actually blatantly called "Coffee-Table Books" suggests that some huge % of books are really purchased for mere show. Not to mention Books I Bought To Utilize As Doorstops (although here it's surely free review copies that generally come into play).)

rindambyers said...

I feel SO goody-goody virtuous after reading a book that I thought I wouldn't like but that I did truly like after I read it! I try to be fair to books, though. Usually, if I can't get into a "good" book at first, I'll try to watch the movie of it if there is one to sort of "lure" mysefl back into the book that way. I feel guilty if I really, really can't like a good book when everyone else says it's a good book, but then I start wondering why which is vastly entertaining thing to do as well.....probably it is fortunate that the rest of the world doesn't live in my messy reading and oh so luxuriously private reading room...I'll go for pleasure before virtue on this one.

Andy Laties said...

Well, it's delightfully entertaining to loathe the books everyone loves. Naturally, everyone must be apprised of our superior judgement.

We must have passed the test and now be Qualified Literary Critics.

If we're booksellers, however, this does not mean we can't stock, sell and profit from the generality of tastelessness...

After all, as Supreme Court Justice O.W.Holmes Jr. said: "We should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe." (This was -- natch -- a dissenting opinion...)

sdl said...

I'm sad to say that I'm afraid my main list is "Books I would have read if I weren't fooling around on the computer instead".