There are plenty of people who tell me that once they start a book, they can’t put it down until they finish it even if they absolutely hate it. Being an agent, I find this unfathomable. But if I’m being honest, even before I entered the dazzling world of publishing, I was never the sort of person who felt compelled to finish something just because I had started.
Reading for a living, though, and knowing that there’s always more work to be done, has only made me more impatient with titles I pick up for pleasure reading. My apartment is littered with books I’ve abandoned after 20 pages because I’m convinced that there’s something better to be found elsewhere on my own overstuffed shelves.
That said, I can think of books that I know I would have abandoned if I weren’t driven for a specific reason to finish them, and I think of what I would have lost by not reading them. What if I had given up on The Corrections because of the talking poop scene? It didn’t matter that I had loved the novel until that point. I was convinced in one scene that the book was about to shatter wide open, and I only kept going because other people told me to. Or what if The Crimson Petal and the White wasn’t something I was reading for office book club? There was about a 100-page stretch in the middle there that I thought was kind of a snooze. Without being obligated to, would I have kept going for the 500 or so pages I still had ahead of me?
When I start to look at the books I haven’t finished in this way, I do start to worry about material I’ve passed on. I like to think that I’ve mastered a way of reading differently when considering for work–after all, if I just hate 20 pages, isn’t that what editing is for? But those doubts will sneak up on you every time. And that’s my dirty secret—the deep internal fear that I will have missed something amazing because I abandoned it too soon.
Of course, there isn’t time to read every page of every submission. That would literally be impossible. And certainly some submissions, strung together in a poor facsimile of English, don’t merit greater consideration. Others very well may.
And that’s something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately—giving people who might have something there a little more benefit of the doubt. Instead of reading until I think something is a no, I can read 10 more pages. Or 20. These are manageable numbers. It comes back to The Corrections for me. Even the best authors go a little wonky sometimes. So I probably owe it to everyone to see if they get beyond their talking poop moment.
Of course, with pleasure reading, sometimes I don’t so much “give up” on books as fall away from them. I was reading (and enjoying) Swamplandia when I left for vacation last summer and forgot to pack it and never picked it back up. The same exact thing happened with The Marriage Plot over Christmas. Interestingly, both show up on the Tournament of Books list for this year. http://www.themorningnews.org/article/here-comes-the-rooster Longtime readers might remember that I adore the ToB. This year, I’m going to use it as a motivator to get back into those books that I was enjoying but didn’t finish. And because there is a whisper of OCD about me, I’m going to attempt to actually complete all 16 books on the list. I’ll give up if it gets in the way of reading for work, but I need a silly goal to give myself, and this fits.
So far, I’ve completed five. My biggest roadblock (literally) will be Murakami’s 1Q84. If anyone wants to join me on the road to attempt to read them before the bracket kicks off in March, I welcome the company on the reading road! Maybe drop me a line on Twitter @jimmccarthy528 to let me know where you’re at! If you’re looking for a starting place, might I recommend Donald Ray Pollock’s viscerally thrilling (if brutal) The Devil All the Time or the one I’m working on now: Ann Patchett’s so-far-so-stunning State of Wonder?