How Not to Read Books

12 May

A shipment of freshly-printed copies of The Talisman

This week, with some relief, I returned The Talisman to the library. It’s a fantasy novel by Stephen King and Peter Straub, roughly the size of a breeze block – and I hadn’t finished it.

There was a time when I hardly ever left a book unfinished, no matter how little I was enjoying it (I’m looking at you, The Lord of the Rings) and when I did, I felt bad about it. I’m a quick reader, so it was usually a case of lack of desire rather than lack of time. These days, time is harder to come by so the quality of the book (or to be fairer, my enjoyment of it) have become more important.

I’ve recently got into the KonMari school of tidying and organising, and discovered the deeply soothing quality of an organised sock drawer. One of the ideas of KonMari is that you should throw out books, which sounds scandalous to a book lover, but when I read on, I could see Marie Kondo’s point. Why keep books you are never going to read (or re-read) and that just stare at you sadly from the bookshelves? If it’s because just seeing them makes you happy, great. But if it doesn’t, why are they taking up valuable bookshelf space?

My sock drawer is a small oasis of order

So quite a lot of my books recently went off to Music Magpie, and others are going to find their way to charity shops in the near future. Some of them I had started but never read. Some of them I hadn’t even started, and knew I probably never would. Getting rid of them is not failure; it is liberation.

In that spirit, here are some books I have left part-read, and the reasons why. Feel free to use the comments to give me your own list.

*

The Talisman, Stephen King & Peter Straub

It is just. Too. Long. That’s not a problem in itself, but when nothing much happens for several hundred pages, and what happens is fairly repetitive, it is a problem. This is especially true when any action present has an unsettlingly sadistic feeling to it. I’ve never failed to finish a Stephen King book before, but this just wasn’t worth the effort. The addition of a semi-human bit of – what? comic relief? – doesn’t improve a long book either, whether it’s a werewolf or an anthropomorphic countryside spirit. (Yes, I’m looking at you again, LOTR. Tom Bombadil should never have made the final edit.)

*

The Lemon Tree, Sandy Tolan

This is not a bad book. In fact it’s very informative, and quite well written. But the author’s insistence on not straying beyond the recorded evidence at all, even for emotions and motivations, eventually makes this non-fiction, novel-ish book unengaging. I know it’s trying to keep cool about an inflammatory subject (the Israel-Palestine conflict) but in the end it was just too cold to hold my attention. Non-fiction novels can be done better than this; just see Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. That leaves you chilled, not frigid.

*

The Celestine Prophecy, James Redfield

This was only vaguely interesting at the start, and became less so as it disappeared deeper up its own worldview. The protagonist experiences spiritual and psychological insights which don’t seem to amount to much in terms of a system of universal truth (spot my western post-Enlightenment bias there) but are so enthralling to him that he must talk about them, at length, while nothing much happens. Then men with guns turn up, he escapes, goes somewhere else and has another insight. Repeat ad nauseam. Real psychological and spiritual insights, I like (try looking up Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning lectures on YouTube for that sort of thing) but this was not my cup of enlightened tea at all.

*

The Fall of Lucifer, Wendy Alec; The Shack, William Paul Young

I’m lumping these ones together because, while they’re dissimilar in some ways, they are both based on Christian (or thereabouts) theology, and they are both really bad. I mean truly, truly appalling. I couldn’t get further than the first chapter of either of them. The writing was so bad it was almost physically painful. I may be a bit hypersensitive when it comes to bad writing, but the very thought of reading these books makes me shudder.

Again, this can actually be done well. This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti is about a hundred times better than The Fall of Lucifer – and that’s a modest estimate.

***

I don’t think these are the only books I’ve rejected. I have a strong memory of throwing a book across the room when it irritated me one time too many, not so long ago (I know, I know, violence against books should never be condoned), but I can’t remember which one it was. Maybe it will come back to me, and I will add it to my list. In the meantime, let me know which books you have rejected, and why, in the comments below.

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