Putdownable books?

Boring bookA recent article in The Independent said that J.K. Rowling’s new book and the abysmally-written 50 Shades of Grey were among the books most put down by readers as unfinishable. Putdownable. A description no author or publisher relishes.

They joined titles like Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Ulysses, Lord of the Rings, Moby Dick, Atlas Shrugged and Catch 22 as books readers gave up the struggle to finish. Personally, I hesitate to put 50 Shades in the same category as anything even vaguely literary, let alone the likes of Joseph Heller and J.R. Tolkein. But we’re talking statistics here, not literary merit.*

That got me thinking about reading habits and expectations. As well as the basic question of why people read in the first place.**

(NB: Rowlings’ The Casual Vacancy might have had more readers had it made the the Literary Review’s Bad Sex 2012 awards. Sex always sells regardless of how mediocre the writing.)

Popular fiction is divided into many genres, and each genre has its own audience. Often these audiences overlap, but not always. What one person expects from, say, a science fiction (my favourite genre) title is not what another expects from a romantic tale. And certainly what one expects from fiction is nothing like what one expects from, say, biography, or science.

So why would you start a book, then not finish it. It often comes down to nothing more than personal taste: you don’t like the characters, the writing style, the location, the plot, and so on. Most recently, I stopped mid-way through a Malcolm Gladwell book, thinking it “twaddle” but that was a judgment on his conclusions and method, rather than on his writing. I gave up on a massive biography of Joseph Smith earlier this year after a couple of hundred pages because I found it overwhelming: more detail than I felt I needed and I was wading through the minutiae like they were molasses.

Why do you give up on a book you’ve started?

Continue reading “Putdownable books?”

Believing is Seeing

Persuasion“He who permits himself to tell a lie once,” wrote Thomas Jefferson (in a letter to his nephew, Peter Carr, from Paris, France, 1785), “finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world’s believing him. This falsehood of tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions.”

Anyone following the ups and downs of federal and provincial politics would have no trouble believing Jefferson’s words. We often believe – without any evidence to support our belief – that politicians lie, simply because other people say so. But Jefferson’s words are a truism that ranges far further, into faith, into social interaction, into relationships and work. It’s all about persuasion, likability and “social proof” or consensus:

…human beings often make choices about what to think, and what to do, based on the thoughts and actions of others. Simply stated: We like to follow the crowd.

People also tend to say yes and agree with people they like (and who shares areas of similarity).

Robert Levine, writing in The Power of Persuasion, says this shows Jefferson “understood the act of taking a stance galvanizes the belief behind the stance.”

In other words, although the speaker knows it isn’t true, by saying it often and loudly enough, the speaker will come to believe it himself, regardless of the truth. Cialdini’s rules of “social proof” and likability come into play here, too, along with the notion of self-justification:

Cialdini says that we’re more likely to be influenced by people we like. Likability comes in many forms – people might be similar or familiar to us, they might give us compliments, or we may just simply trust them.

If you feel the speaker is “one of us,” likable or a peer, someone who shares some similarity with us, we are more likely to consequently repeat the content. We will then commit to that belief by repeating it often enough ourselves.* Continue reading “Believing is Seeing”

Troilus and Cressida

Telegraph UKI’ve always found Troilus and Cressida a difficult play. The characters all seem jaded, cynical, opportunistic, stuffily sanctimonious, lecherous or simply underhanded. Some are merely unpleasant, others are despicable, reprehensible. All seem self-serving, more concerned with their own gains and goals than that of the greater war around them.

It’s difficult to understand why it was listed as a “comedy” (although oddly placed in the folio, between the histories and tragedies).

Even Harold Bloom calls it “difficult” and “elitist” (although he later qualifies it as Shakespeare’s “most sophisticated” and “intellectualized” play). And Joyce Carol Oates called it, “…that most vexing and ambiguous of Shakespeare’s plays.”

UK reviewer, Charles Spencer, wrote of a 2008 production,

This is surely the bleakest, nastiest and most nihilistic of all Shakespeare’s plays… The whole drama is obsessed with disease and bad faith. The cynicism, and sense of exhausted contempt, undoubtedly makes the play seem extremely modern. It also makes it hard to sit through, and a relief to escape from.

There is no real honour among warriors as we see in Shakespeare’s history plays (Hector’s single moment of gallantry, allowing the exhausted Achilles to live, is marred by his immediate desire to kill a different, unknown Greek solider, solely for his shining armour).

There’s no redemption, either, just self-serving action, personal agendas, vengeance, adolescent lust, scheming, cynicism and politics. There seems no remorse, no guilt, no shame like you might find in Hamlet or Macbeth.* Hector, when he tells Troilus,

There is a law in each well-order’d nation
To curb those raging appetites that are
Most disobedient and refractory. (2.2.180-183)

suggests that laws, not conscience, not guilt, are all that controls humanity. This is the opposite of the message in Shakespeare’s other plays, which almost always explore the effect of shame and conscience on the protagonists and their actions. Continue reading “Troilus and Cressida”

The Game of the Book of Thrones

GuardianNo, it’s not about that heavyweight book series by George Martin, or the TV series based on it (or even about how you really need to read the books to understand anything that is happening in the TV series). It’s about the other throne, the porcelain one. And what books are best for reading thereon.

Yes, reading on the toilet. Don’t tell me you just sit there and stare vacantly into space.

This is important time. Those few rare minutes when we really have uninterrupted time to ourselves; quality time with our bodily functions unhampered by TV, by the phone, by people wanting to see your gas bill or water heater, by the cats or the dog, by the kids or the neighbours.*

Perfect time for reading. It’s quiet, peaceful, gently lit and often fragranced by the sweet aromas of toiletries, like a garden of lilacs and roses. There you can concentrate, focus your attention on the book at hand, while your body takes care of the autonomous business of emptying itself.

So what sort of publication is perfect for that all-too-short slice of intellectual freedom? What work can you read for a few, exhilarating minutes, put down for several hours or even a whole day, and pick up again and continue reading without having lost the thread or diminished the intellectual thrill?

Clearly, for most folks, that’s a challenge. Continuity makes it difficult to read War and Peace in five-minute snippets. From one day to the next, you won’t remember who Count Whats-his-name is or why he’s out of favour, or who’s sleeping with whom or why they’re all akimbo over the French. For this sort of book, continuity matters.

I know, I’ve tried. I’ve been inching my way through Boswell’s Life of Johnson in the downstairs bathroom for the past two years. Unsuccessfully, if keeping clear all his comments, his activities and his conversations is the point. I switched to Bruce Campbell’s autobiography, If Chins Could Kill, and found – despite the shallow, narcissistic content – it was much easier to track through Campbell’s life than Johnson’s. But I feel somehow my bathroom experienced is cheapened.

Continue reading “The Game of the Book of Thrones”

Midway in our Life’s Journey…

Too many books!So begins The Inferno, the first of the three books that comprise Dante’s magnificent and complex work, The Divine Comedy.* It’s a rich, complex and challenging read. I have to admit I have not read it all – all three books that is – but I have made a mighty effort to complete Inferno in several editions.

My problem is not comprehension, but rather distraction. Were this a desert isle, it would make it much easier to finish. I read like a jackdaw.

But back to Dante. The first lines (Canto I, trans. by John Ciardi, Norton edn.), continue:

Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood.

I was reading that opening again, this week, as I collected books from my shelves to donate to the local library. Powerful words. Don’t we all feel that doubt at some time in our lives, that nagging question whether we had made all the right choices, followed the right path? Don’t we all wonder what life would have been like if we made the other choice, took the other road, chose the other person?

And here I am with a book in my hand wondering what life would be like had I never opened it, never read it, never followed it down the path it led me to. What less would I have understood, what less would I have felt, what less would I have explored without it?

I can’t imagine a life without Dante. Without Shakespeare, Chaucer, T.S. Eliot, Shunryu Suzuki, Frank Herbert, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Dickens, Carl Sagan, Casanova, Dante, Machiavelli, Wallace Stevens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bill Bryson… so many authors whose works have helped build my world view. Wouldn’t life be poorer without them?

Can I bear to part from them? Continue reading “Midway in our Life’s Journey…”

Musing on Melville’s Poetry

Herman MelvilleI came across a poem last night that I had not read in the past (always a pleasant thing to discover something new in one of your books)*. It is by Herman Melville, an author I associate with novels and short stories rather than poetry. Yet he was surprisingly prolific as a poet, mostly in his later life.

Poem Hunter lists 93 of his poems on its site (on PDF here). He wrote many more, it seems – many of them naval or related to the sea, others about the Civil War – and the collected works can be found at the University of Virginia.

Here’s the poem that pleasantly surprised me by its complexity and modernity, given its 1888 publication. It’s called The Maldive Shark:

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw,
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril’s abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat —
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.

It’s hard, reading that, to remember Melville was a contemporary of Walt Whitman and that both of them published rather morally-laden socially instructive books of poetry about the Civil War almost simultaneously (Whitman’s Drum Taps in 1865, Melville’s Battle Pieces in 1866).

Continue reading “Musing on Melville’s Poetry”