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?

Sara Donaldson wrote a blog piece called, “Life’s too short for boring books.” She writes:

…when that tedious, try as hard as you can to like it, book comes along do yourself a favour. Realise that you may love it later, you may never go back to it, but put it down and move on to the next one. There is always a pile of books to read, it’s not compulsory to finish every book you buy.

Boring is an opinion, a personal judgment that others may not share. I loved the Lord of the Rings trilogy, enough to read it cover to cover several times (even before the movies). Others find it tedious. There’s no right or wrong in aesthetic judgment, merely points of view.
Steinbeck quote

At eslbee.com, there is a brief comment on why students should read, offering three reasons:

  • expand your knowledge and also your culture;
  • you can have fun and even travel in your imagination;
  • expand your vocabulary and the ways to express your ideas to the others in a simple and correct form.

Livedev lists eight benefits to reading:

  • Enhanced Smarts;
  • Reading reduces stress;
  • Greater tranquility;
  • Improved analytical thinking;
  • Increased vocabulary;
  • Improved memory;
  • Improved writing skills;
  • Helps prioritize goals.

I hem and haw over the last one, because I often procrastinate other tasks while reading something I don’t want to put down. But I would also add:

  • Reading gives us an opening into which we look to see how others think, feel, behave and respond, thus allowing us to better understand others;
  • Reading lets us connect to not only our own culture, but to all pasts and presents of all cultures, civilizations, and societies; to share their wisdom, learning, arts, histories and laws and thus understand our own.

Earlier this year, Time Magazine reported a Canadian study that shows reading literature makes us “smarter and nicer.” But there’s a caveat: it has to be “deep reading” not the casual sort of reading we do online. But, as the study found, “deep reading” is not as common today:

“Deep reading” — as opposed to the often superficial reading we do on the Web — is an endangered practice, one we ought to take steps to preserve as we would a historic building or a significant work of art. Its disappearance would imperil the intellectual and emotional development of generations growing up online, as well as the perpetuation of a critical part of our culture: the novels, poems and other kinds of literature that can be appreciated only by readers whose brains, quite literally, have been trained to apprehend them.

The study found that:

Recent research in cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience has demonstrated that deep reading — slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity — is a distinctive experience, different in kind from the mere decoding of words. Although deep reading does not, strictly speaking, require a conventional book, the built-in limits of the printed page are uniquely conducive to the deep reading experience. A book’s lack of hyperlinks, for example, frees the reader from making decisions — Should I click on this link or not? — allowing her to remain fully immersed in the narrative.

That immersion is supported by the way the brain handles language rich in detail, allusion and metaphor: by creating a mental representation that draws on the same brain regions that would be active if the scene were unfolding in real life. The emotional situations and moral dilemmas that are the stuff of literature are also vigorous exercise for the brain, propelling us inside the heads of fictional characters and even, studies suggest, increasing our real-life capacity for empathy.

So there’s an argument not only for reading, but also for continuing that book rather than tossing it on the night table and giving up: to get deeper into it. And by doing so, gain all the benefits from immersion?

Is the reason we are so easily bored with a book simply a reflection of modern culture? With our culture gnat-like attention span, we flit from interest to interest, finding it difficult to light, intellectually, long enough to get a proper sense of the work we are reading? (in which case, we may merely need some self-help advice on time management, not a lecture on the pedagogical nature of reading….)

Or are we so literate that we cannot stomach mediocrity in the written word? That we find distaste in misplaced semicolons, in aberrations of style, in plots that veer too sharply from Joseph Campbell’s heroic journey? Are we too sophisticated?

Or in the final analysis, is the book simply bad? Bad beyond the boundaries of class, taste and education. Given that – from the stats it seems – thousands of readers tossed their copy of 50 Shades into the waste bin, I suspect the latter explanation, because it beggars belief that all those readers would share the same level of education, literacy or even taste.

I, like many others, shared the initial sense that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was boring and uneventful. It wasn’t: all that was required was to stick with it, because like a train engine, it took some time to get up to speed, building by character development rather than overt action. The book rewarded persistent readers with a complex, thrilling, rich combination of plot, characters and setting.

But it was also well written; had it been otherwise, it would not have merited continuance.

As studies have shown, at least in America people are reading less for enjoyment than ever before, an oddity given the number of books in print these days. In 2007, the New York Times reported:

The problem was underscored last week when the National Endowment for the Arts delivered the sobering news that Americans — particularly teenagers and young adults — are reading less for fun. At the same time, reading scores among those who read less are declining, and employers are proclaiming workers deficient in basic reading comprehension skills.

The internet is not solely to blame: TV sucks the literature out of many a life. It’s hard to imagine a person hooked on such banal tripe as Jersey Shore wanting to get immersed in, say, the the pedestrian Eat, Love, Pray let alone the newest translation of Dumas’ the Three Musketeers.

There are better, more fulfilling shows, especially the BBC and HBO dramas that are as rich in narrative and character as any novel (and not simply those derived from the works of Dickens or Austen). However, in terms or viewing opportunities, the mind-numbing category far outweighs anything with intellectual or dramatic merit. For all our technological advances, it’s surprising the popularity of entertainment that would be too low-brow for illiterate medieval peasants to waste time on. But I digress.

The NY Times article continues:

The question of whether reading, or reading books in particular, is essential is complicated by the fact that part of what draws people to books can now be found elsewhere — and there is only so much time to consume it all. Readers who want to know they are not alone are finding reflections of themselves in the confessional blogs sprouting across the Internet. And television shows like “The Sopranos” or “Lost” can satisfy the hunger for narrative and richly textured characters in a way that only books could in a previous age.

Reading is a human invention. No other animal has developed the ability to create meaning from abstract symbols. Humans emerged from primitive hunter-gatherer or agrarian societies into civilization precisely because they had developed a system of writing – and thus reading is what makes the difference between civilization and barbarian.

In his book, Reading in the Brain, Stanislas Dehaene writes,

Our ability to read brings us face to face with the singularity of the human brain. Why is Homo sapiens the only species that actively teaches itself?… Our species alone rises above its biological condition, creates an artificial cultural environment for itself, and teaches itself new skills like reading.

My dog and my cats, sometimes watch the TV and derive some meaning from it. They may not appreciate the subtleties of, say, West Wing, or Downton Abbey, but when they see a squirrel run on the screen, they will react. Intelligent as they are, they get no sense from the written word. Printing “squirrel” on a piece of paper does not engage them to chase anything. Only humans understand the squiggles that form letters which in turn coagulate into words that spark meaning in our brains. Reading is a very human, uniquely human, act.***

But of course, not every book is created equal. What you expect from reading a book will colour the experience. If you expect to be entertained by Augustine’s City of God, or More’s Utopia, you will likely be disappointed. If you expect to find great philosophical depth or cosmic insight in one of Christopher Moore’s or Cal Hiassen’s comic novels, you will be equally disappointed (perhaps with the exception of Moore’s Lamb…). For me, Augustine’s dense prose and religiosity is easily “putdownable” while I have read almost every one of Moore’s and Hiassen’s novels with great pleasure.

Chacun a son gout. Diversity makes the world more interesting. If we all liked or understood a work in the same way, there would be no intellectual debate, no conversation about its merits, its message, its meaning. Italo Calvino, in Why Read the Classics?, defines as one of 14 definitions, a classic as a book “which has never exhausted all it has to say to readers.”

But that is true of any book, even the bottom-of-the-barrel mommy porn like 50 Shades. Every printed work generates as many opinions, comments and attitudes about it as there are readers. No two people will read a book the same way. ****

Is Machiavelli’s The Prince an instruction manual for autocrats? A satire? A sly attempt to slip republicanism into a hereditary system of governance? A clumsy, contradictory work? The most important and wise book on realpolitik ever written? It all depends on you, the reader, your background, and your political stripe (and of course, your influencers, as Cialdini and Levine point out in their books on persuasion – all of which assumes you actually read the book and didn’t base your opinion on someone’s comments or review).

Socrates grumbled that books have a correct interpretation for the written word, available only to the few who have been initiated into the meaning (as Alberto Manguel writes in, A History of Reading). “Once a thing has been put into writing,” Socrates argued, “the text, whatever it might be, is taken from place to place and falls into the hands not only of those who understand it, but also of those who have no business with it.”

Controlling the interpretation, the correct view of a book, is too authoritarian for my taste. This notion of heterodox versus orthodox interpretation was a mainstay of Christianity – from the beginning its leaders were determined to control the interpretation of the written word, ever since Paul warned against “philosophers” who might raise a different point of view (Colossians 2:8).

In which case, I argue putting a book down, when the reader is within the narrative, making that decision for yourself, is not only a very human act, but one that carries the weight of freedom, individuality and choice. Choice is what saves us from authoritarianism, even if it’s a symbolic act made over a clumsy work of popular fiction. Toss down that copy of 50 Shades and be free of the dictatorship of mass culture.

But don’t turn on the TV instead. Pick up another book, read something different. Explore outside your own comfort zone. Read fantasy, science fiction, thrillers, detective novels; read history, science, theology and biography. As long as you read. In lectito veritas *****

~~~~~

* Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: read the trilogy. Slow start but rewards with depth later;
Ulysses: somewhere in the first third a decade or three since I began. Slow read for me but because my father liked and read it, I persist;
Lord of the Rings: read the trilogy at least three times;
Moby Dick: somewhere in the first quarter, about a decade since. Read the Classic comic book several times though, for high school book reviews, and love the Gregory Peck movie;
Atlas Shrugged: Dreary, ideological stuff. Made it most of the way through. Can’t recall finishing it.
Catch 22: don’t remember if I finished it: started reading it many decades ago.
I never read 50 Shades or The Casual Vacancy, but I have read excerpts. Two books I would have added to that list: Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, and Darwin’s Origin of Species, both high on the list of books unread by the masses. I have not attempted the former, but have read the latter, albeit in my youth, but only some chapters since. But for a book few have actually read, there are a lot of opinions about it.

** I read mostly (80% or more) non-fiction and read at least 95% of all books to the end, even the dismal or crackpot stuff. My reading habits are somewhat different than most, in that I read several books simultaneously, switching from one to another usually after I finished a chapter. I have anywhere from six to a dozen books on the go at any time, and sometimes even more. Perhaps this alters the way one appreciates a single book.

*** I suspect, however, my dog and cats would get as much meaning as I do from Jersey Shore, Duck Dynasty, American Pickers or any of the other embarrassingly mindless “reality” dreck that passes for TV programming these days.

**** It’s not the prurient subject matter in 50 Shades that annoys me – I have several of the Marquis de Sade’s works in my library, as well as Casanova’s 12-volume autobiography, Terry Southern’s Blue and have read many better works of erotica, new and classic, than Ms. James could ever hope to emulate. It’s rather the tedium of the writing – based on the excerpts I’ve read – that I dislike.8

***** Which, in my clumsy Latin, should translate to, “In reading is there truth.” Like in vino veritas, but with books.

2 thoughts on “Putdownable books?


  1. Ian,

    Thank you for the stimulating and insightful comments.

    The deficiency of my formal education was in being a biochemistry major. At the time, humanities didn’t seem challenging enough.

    However, some comments (or sequential musings) on your observations (with thanks for my stimulation):

    Reading differs from other activities in that it gives us a vicarious cognitive experience without the risk, commitment or expense.

    However, “Sex always sells regardless of how mediocre the writing.”

    Not only does sex always sell, vicarious sex is what created literature whether it was Gilgamesh or Moll Flanders or Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

    But reading does NOT make us smarter. What it does is reinforce our convictions and illusions.

    The significance of “Deep reading” is that it forces us to have a relationship with the content rather the superficial forms of other internet “social networking.”

    Are we “bored” or too “sophisticated?” Yes. It depends on the person and the book. I found “Tattoo” fascinating because of the main character’s challenge to connect the dots of the mystery. I wouldn’t even touch a Harry Potter book because I find “nouveau mythology” idiotic as a form of intellectual masturbation.

    Did I mention that the interest depends on the book and the person?

    But why are people reading less? It has to do with information overload.

    When there were a limited number of sources for intellectual stimulation, the few people who read cherished their written texts, and not just their bibles. Now that we have information overload, and superficial stuff is easier to digest because of the lack of commitment.

    And I love Reading in the Brain, where Stanislas Dehaene writes,
    Our ability to read brings us face to face with the singularity of the human brain. Why is Homo sapiens the only species that actively teaches itself?… Our species alone rises above its biological condition, creates an artificial cultural environment for itself, and teaches itself new skills like reading.

    Partly thanks to Stanislas I now have an understanding that dyslexia is a retinal dysfunction rather than cognitive. People whose eyes function to primarily see distances (red dominant vision) have trouble with that “new fangled skill” called reading which requires seeing close images more easily (green dominant vision).

    “Only humans understand the squiggles that form letters.” Wrong. Eastern civilizations use pictographs which is why dyslexics in China have brain function suppression in a different location than the brain suppression of European dyslexics. Re-read Dehaene page 246.

    “Socrates grumbled that books have a correct interpretation for the written word,”
    Wrong. Socrates was quoted as saying that reading and writing were an abomination. The only way to have real knowledge was memory. Socrates is likely the world’s first Certified Dyslexic (which is why he couldn’t read and found it so abominable). And when he took the poisoning for fomenting a violent revolution against democracy in Athens, he still didn’t’ suffer enough.

    And Alberto Manguel does not understand why Socrates was opposed to writing and is mistaking what Socrates really meant.

    “Controlling the interpretation” is why more Christians were killed in the first hundred years of the of Christian rule starting in 325 AD than in the previous 300 years under Rome. (Max Dimont, Jews, God & History, page 148. Dimont is quoting Gibbon.)

    And I loved all three “Tattoo” books, even more than the movies.

    What you are missing in your concern for the maintenance of literacy is the realization that literacy is a relatively new phenomena of human history. What we are now seeing from the response to the Age of Information Overload is the evolution of our “Time Machine” society towards Morlocks and Eloi. Or if we don’t blow ourselves up and destroy the illusion of civilization, the beginning of “Brave New World” where the few “literati” are the Alphas.

    A present for YOU:

    Go to http://www.induceddyslexia.com/hitchhiker.htm and listen to all twelve of the original Douglas Adams original episodes from 1979 radio broadcast. I was fortunate to get a copy of the master tapes in 1980 and preserved the cassettes until I was able to convert them to an MP3 format and post them (with questionable copyright authority) on one of my webpages.

    Or to quote the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation motto, “Share and enjoy.”

    HHGG is probably THE most brilliant and predictive piece of literature in the 20th century EXCEPT that the best version is NOT literature but the original radio broadcast. The words (and sounds) in your ears are far more compelling than the print version that was transcribed from that broadcast.

    Hmm. Maybe Socrates was right?


  2. I have read a few of the books you mention. I never made it passed the first 50 pages of Harry Potter (I felt is lacked the magic of – say – the Narnia books). I wouldn’t be temped to read anything else by Rowling. The ‘Fifty Shades’ series is a triumph of marketing over substance; even Mrs Bunkertoad was disappointed. Mind you, she lives with the product of a British Public School in the 1950s (there isn’t much E L James can teach us about sex and corporal punishment).
    I started to watch the film Eat, Pray, Love and had to turn it off after the opening pretentious monologue (which I suspect came straight from a terrible novel).
    Of course, there will always be plenty of bad books to pick out. The most interesting exercise is to find the occasional aberrations by otherwise fine and entertaining writers. Some simply run out of steam at a certain point in their careers (like – say – Martin Amis). Some produce a single bad work for no clear reason. Thats why the annual ‘Bad Sex Award’ is such fun; because to be considered a writer must be producing work that is generally of merit. Otherwise its just too easy and too boring to pick out examples of bad writing. I
    Other examples of put-downable books by great writers? Hemmingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls. Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory (although critically acclaimed). Dickens A Tale of Two Cities (although I love dickens). Pyrates by George Macdonald Fraser (otherwise one of my favourite authors). The Great Gatsby (yuk!).