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Virtuous reading

My neighborhood book club is tomorrow night and I’m about 100 pages into this month’s fiction pick, The Tiger’s Wife.  I guess that if I stay up late and cram I can finish it in time to dazzle the ladies with my literary insights.  Problem is, I got to page 100 about two months ago and I have had zero desire to pick the book up again.  Despite the apocalyptically excellent reviews (sorry, couldn’t come up with an adjective BIG enough for the unctuous praise the book received), those first 100 pages left me pretty cold.  Sure, Ms. Obreht is a precociously fine writer, but if you’re familiar with magical realism and Eastern European novels of the last half century, you might find, like I did, that a lot of her schtick is derivative and not particularly emotionally impactful.

Or, you might think it’s a brilliant book and that I’m a boor for being bored by it.  No matter.  The point of my rambling today is that with any other book, I might have reached that 100-page stopping point and, deciding that life’s too short, buried the novel somewhere in the lower shelves of an overstuffed bookcase never to be seen again.  But, I can’t seem to do that.  This is one of those books that I feel obligated to slog through no matter how disappointed in it I already am or how certain that the next 200 pages are not going to change my mind.  What I want to be reading for pleasure is a toothy thriller, or a frothy paranormal, or literary fare that speaks to themes I’m concerned with right now, or historical nonfiction with lots of plot twists and stranger-than-fiction characters, or a totally irredeemable celebrity memoir.  What I feel obligated to do is finish Ms. Obreht’s opus just so that I can say I did.

I’ve always struggled with the notion of virtuous reading.  On the one hand, if it weren’t for virtuous reading, my literary education would be sorely lacking in some key areas (I’m thinking of you, James Fenimore Cooper).  On the other hand, with so many great books beckoning and the certainty that I’ll never get to enjoy but a fraction of the ones on my multi-page list of things to read before I die, it really rankles to devote valuable time to something just because it’s supposed to be good for me.

Where do you fall on this issue?  Do I keep reading and pat myself on the back for my moral fortitude or chuck it and move on to some other page turner?  What would you do?

21 Responses to Virtuous reading

  1. Ciara says:

    I never read anything that doesn’t excite me anymore. I used to try and slog my way through Pride and Prejudice or The Sound and the Fury but I realised one day with a panic that there are millions of books out there that I would enjoy and never get to read so I’m not wasting any more time on reading virtuously. Having said that I do still attempt to read those books that you’re supposed to read and sometimes I love them but if I’m not feeling it I won’t waste time on it, or on feeling guilty because I haven’t read the book everyone else loves (*cough visit from the goon squad).

  2. Julie Nilson says:

    I felt the same way about “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” It was a book that I felt like I *should* read, even though I wasn’t loving it. I did finish it, because I think all the rave reviews made me think that eventually there would be something that would make me love it. But it didn’t happen.

    • I put off reading Goon Squad for a long time because I was afraid I would be come to it with expectations that were too high. I finally read it recently and found that while the thought that this was a Highly Regarded Book was somewhere at the back of my mind the whole time, I did enjoy it very much, even the story told in power point, strangely enough, because it seemed so gimmicky.

      I am interested to know what disappointed you about the book, if that is something that can be articulated.

  3. “Virtuous reading” is the perfect term! I have done some of it, the latest being The Piano Teacher. The reasons were not the best: I was a piano teacher, I am familiar with the culture in Hong Kong, and yes, I paid full price for a hardcover. Or maybe I harbored hopes that the book would get better.

    I am part way through a hugely-popular YA novel right now and have been skimming a lot of it. I like one scene very much, but the rest has not managed to keep me focused. I think I will finish this one, because I write YA and I need to know what’s out there and I can probably skim the rest of the book as I have done so far.

    Or maybe I’m just a closet optimist and I expect something fantabulous to happen later in the book.

    • Rowenna says:

      Yat-Yee–I virtuously read The Piano Teacher, too! It was a book I so “ought” to have loved…and I finished because I thought there must be something more that I was missing until the end. It’s that reader’s optimism you mention–this must have something hiding, a lovely gem that I just haven’t uncovered yet.

  4. Kim says:

    I feel your pain. I’m reading David Lodge’s “Therapy” for a book club, and find that I will likely need some when I’m through. Another member is loving it–very funny, he thinks. But I’m working my way through it at the one-third way point with only one memorable laugh. I’ll never look at Newman’s Own Salad Dressing in the same way again.

    Oh, how I yearn for the “Night Circus” sitting on my bedside table, and the dozens of other books I purchased over the last six months.

  5. Pretend you weren’t telling this story about a book. Pretend you were telling it about someone you were dating. Perfectly nice, great teeth, blah blah no sizzle.

    Now. Is it really worth finishing that book? Doesn’t it deserve a chance to move on, and find someone who will enjoy it for what it is? Don’t YOU deserve a chance at some sizzle?

    I rest my case.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Sparknotes.com

  7. Miriam says:

    Maril, that’s hysterical–and dead on. Ciara and Julie, I actually loved GOON SQUAD despite the hype but that one grabbed me right away. I’m getting the sense that you’re all agreeing that life’s too short, but then there’s the phenomenon of being deeply unimpressed by something you start reading and setting it aside for a few weeks/ months/years and going back to it and falling totally in love.

  8. Drew says:

    Don’t you think virtuous reading was something you did in high school and college? Those books that your Professors shoved down your throat? While I can admire the fact that you have enough resolve to trudge through for a book club I can also say I wouldn’t do it. With so many good books out there that can and will keep my attention from start to finish I don’t think I could bring myself to delay!

  9. Lara says:

    Miriam, I had the same reaction to the Tiger’s Wife and just stopped about 80- 100 pages in. I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts when you finish it. Wondering if it will be like the first book in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series where you really get into it about 3/4 through the book after suffering through the long build up.

  10. Sarah Henson says:

    Chuck it. There are some books that you push through because everyone says “just hold on until you get to the halfway point, then it really gets good.” Others, however, are meant for the back of the shelf or donate box. Personally, I’ve never been able to get through Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “House of the Seven Gables.” I’ve tried, just so I can mark it off my list, but it bores me to tears. Of course, I can’t bring myself to join a book club because reading what someone else tells me to and then discussing its literary worth sucks the enjoyment out of it for me. Good luck if you decide to slog through!

  11. Catherine Whitney says:

    I discussed this blog with my mother, whose ambitious book club reads a book a month. I asked her what happened when people didn’t like a book. She said, “Well, if the ladies don’t like it, they refuse to read it.” She added, “I HAVE to read every book because I write the reviews for the [assisted living center] newsletter.” However, she did point out that when she read books she might not have otherwise chosen, she always learned something new. “How else would I know the story of General Custer?” she asked. Go Mom! (She’s 86.)

  12. DBurks says:

    Dump it. I try to read most of the award winners to see what the ‘real professionals’ value, but I am consistently disappointed. I finally decided that reviewers are not really virtuous enough to actually read the books they rate. I have too many good things to do to waste my time reading compulsively simply because of commercial hype or critical nonsense.
    I am also convinced that the reader’s station in life and state of mind are critical to their ability to grasp a story. The same Cooper tales you found dense and dead I found exciting enough to read all of them as a fifteen year old boy in Arkansas who could instantly recognize the characters and their motivations. Even the antique language was part of the charm. Still, I was the only one. I also was thrilled with Walter Scott.
    The one current writer who sells millions that I simply can not understand is Jeffrey Archer. I find his stories adequate and not a complete waste of time, but they seem so ordinary. What’s the attraction?
    The Robert Jordan ‘Wheel of Time’ books that my grandson and his college friends find so captivating make no sense at all to me. I want a book that gets to the real story in less than five hundred pages of stage setting and preparation.
    Now that the word is out that you will slog through 100 pages of a boring book you are about to receive about ten thousand submissions a day. Good luck.

  13. Hillsy says:

    HA! Be lucky you have a choice, or at least an unhampered one.

    Due to some wierd synaptic misfiring, I can’t NOT finish ANY book. Dunno if it’s guilt, or OCD, or what…but I’ll read to the end, no matter the cost.

    I finished the “left hand of god” yesterday, and after the first 100 pages (which were pretty OK) it nosedived spectacularly – and not just boring, I mean offensively bad. So bad it was making me angry. But I *had* to finish it (and not because it was gripping in anyway despite the appalling writing) which took me about a week.

    So consider yourself fortunate…hehe

    As for the virtuous part, well I think they do a bit on the podcast “writing excuses” where they talk about The Da Vinci code and why every aspiring author should read it. If you’re not enjoying it, that’s fine, just shift focus and study it instead to find out what Dan Brown did right.

    In your case, if your struggling, change your reasons for why your reading it (and, yes, I guess just saying ‘you have’ is a viable reason)

  14. I’m trying to get better about dropping a series if it devolves into a sequence of vignettes. That’s always so sad when I loved the initial books. However, I do think there’s value in plowing through stories that maybe aren’t page turners, but resonate years later. Trouble is, hard to know which those are going to be.

  15. Stephanie P. says:

    I push through a novel whose story isn’t grabbing me or lacks emotional voice if the writing is beautiful. It is the beauty of the writing that motivates me to read. I devoured The Tiger’s Wife for that reason. If the reviews were excellent, I certainly push myself more. BUT… when I don’t like it, I don’t waste my time in reading further (The Help, Super Sad True Love Story, etc).

  16. Candace Austin says:

    You’re having a mid-book crisis. It happens. You’re bored, longing for more. So go out there and spend ridiculous amounts of money on titillating books that make you feel inspired, happy, full of life. Sure, the book clubs will whisper. The scandal! Let them. As Sheryl Crow said, “If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad.” But don’t lose hold of the virtuous book, the classic. One day, you may find yourself intrigued by the promise it held, and discover that the last half of the story delivers the happiness you were searching for. Then again, you may never look back!

  17. Teri Carter says:

    It’s taken me 40 years to decide I don’t have to slog through a book. I still feel guilty, of course! But I just can’t do it. No matter how many “experts” and friends go on and on and on about a novel’s greatness.

    THE TIGER’S WIFE is one. I came home from AWP last year (where I’d seen Ms. Obrecht) and bought a copy. All I can say is you, Miriam, made it twice as far as I did. I also hated Franzen’s FREEDOM, and Orringer’s THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE, and Moore’s A GATE AT THE STAIRS. That last one hurt me — I worship at the writing altar of Lorrie Moore. But I kept reading and waiting for my Lorrie Moore to show up. After 150 pages I was sure she didn’t even write the book, that’s how foreign it seemed.

    On a recent vacation, I was slogging through Mantel’s WOLF HALL and my husband put an old 130-pager in my hands: John D. MacDonald’s first Travis McGee book. I read it in one day. And loved every minute.

    Life’s too short for the slog.

  18. Pingback: Hang in There? | Word (en)Count(ers)

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