Just Wondering…

Hello, hallo, hullo. Good morrow to you.

I’m here listening to some Pink Floyd, and it has put me in a very mellow mood indeed. Life seems great (despite my rapidly advancing age – see yesterday’s blog!) and all sorts of frivolities are flipping about in my cavernous skull. Today, I’m thinking about reading, and how you know whether you’ll like a book or not. Do you judge its cover (despite all the warnings against it!) or is it the ‘blurb’ that attracts you to a story? Have you ever made any serious errors of judgement in your reading life? How far into a book do you have to be before you’d consider writing it off as a lost cause, or are you the type of reader who will doggedly persist no matter how poor the doggerel you’re slogging through, a sort of ‘finish or perish’ mentality?

I’m not wondering this because of anything I’ve read recently – in fact, it’s been a long, long time since I came across a book I just couldn’t force myself to finish. Many years ago, I boasted, filled with the hubris of youth, that I *never* left a book unread if I started it. A friend promptly challenged me to read L. Ron Hubbard’s ‘Dianetics’; I think I may have reached page 4 before my brain started to mount a rebellion against my eyes, and I had to shut the thing and fling it as far from me as possible. Since then, there have been some others that didn’t make it much further than the starting blocks – another friend asked if I could possibly read ‘Mein Kampf’ (the answer is, of course, ‘no’, though I did give it a go, albeit briefly). Also, there are some classics which I just couldn’t manage – one of them is ‘Middlemarch’, about which I’ve had some impassioned arguments over the years. I don’t care what anyone says – Casaubon is a character that should just never have existed, end of story. I read the beginning of ‘Middlemarch’, and the last 50 pages or so, leaving about 80% of it unread, and still managed to write a passable essay on it while at university. This is less a statement of my own intellectual prowess as it is an indictment of the Irish higher education system, but I digress.

In recent years, I started ‘Wolf Hall’ but didn’t manage to finish it (though I do intend to go back to it as soon as I can clear enough space in my head – so, probably not till the New Year); I also started Nicola Barker’s ‘Darkmans’, which I really liked, but just wasn’t able to get my head around. I think my bookmark sits forlornly at about page 140, where it has remained for about three years. I intend to chivvy it along one of these days, and finish the book, but for whatever reason, I just haven’t been able to manage it. A recent book which I came this close to finishing, but for some reason didn’t, was ‘Embassytown’ (China Mieville); it’s a work of genius, but at the time I tried to read it I didn’t have the opportunity to devote my unbroken, full attention to it. I was trying to snatch ten pages here, fifteen pages there – and I really think it’s a book which just doesn’t respond well to that sort of treatment. I wasn’t able to really engage with it properly, and it creates such a rich imaginative world that you really need to be able to immerse yourself in it. However, I did get to within twenty pages of the end before I gave up. I fully intend finishing it, and probably sooner rather than later.

One thing these books all have in common is wonderful covers, and enticing blurbs. I think I’m a bit of a fiend for a good book cover. An intriguing author photo helps too, sometimes. I usually end up being drawn to books with a focus on history (particularly medieval or ‘early modern’, or whatever it is they’re calling the Renaissance nowadays), or perhaps with a supernatural/folklore-ish flavour, and of course I can’t help but indulge myself when I pass near the SF/Fantasy shelves – you can’t really beat SF/Fantasy books for excellent cover art. I think my love of a good book jacket is another reason why I just can’t warm to e-readers; it’s just not the same when all you’re looking at is pixels on a screen. Sometimes, though, I do feel short-changed when a blurb, a beautiful cover, or even reviews, lead me to believe a book is going to be life-changingly brilliant, and it turns out not to be the case. A recent example was ‘1Q84’, by the normally mind-bogglingly amazing Haruki Murakami. For months in advance of publication, I’d read reviews which told of this book becoming an instant bestseller in Japan; it had sold a million copies before it had even been printed. Advance reviews promised wonderful things. As well as that, I’ve savoured so many of his past works that I was practically foaming at the mouth to get my hands on ‘1Q84’ – such was my ardour that I couldn’t even wait for Books 1 & 2 (published together) to become available in paperback. I had to have the hardback, and I left it for ages on my bookshelf, like a treat to myself. I even bought the hardback Book 3, so they’d look pretty together on the shelf.

Well, they do look pretty. But…

I just don’t know. Perhaps it was the anticipation, or perhaps it was the fact that I usually love his work and was fully primed to love this, too. Maybe it was the fact that I adored Book 1 and thought Book 2 was reasonably good, but by the time it came to Book 3, and I realised I had hundreds of pages of drawn-out, samey story to trudge through before the wholly unsatisfactory ending, that I felt my enthusiasm for it had been sucked right out of me. There are characters in the books called Little People, for instance, who are supposed to be evil, threatening and spooky – but to an Irish reader, all that ‘Little People’ conjurs up is bad old movies about leprechauns, and folklore about fairies. I just couldn’t get behind them as the source of all horror, or whatever it is Murakami intended them to be. After the ten millionth time they’re mentioned, I just wanted to eat the book rather than finish it, but I persevered. I’m glad I did, but I really don’t know if I’d recommend it to anyone else. It was a lesson, perhaps, not to be sucked in completely by a beautiful cover and great reviews. Normally, of course, you can rely on your past experience of an author – in this case, I didn’t feel it was so clear cut. ‘1Q84’ definitely was not up to the standard of a Murakami masterwork like ‘Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World’, which is a book I’d recommend to anyone who’s willing to let logic fly out the window and who’s looking for a mind-expanding read.

So. Are there any hard book lessons you’ve learned? Anything you’ve read that you’d rather have left unfinished, or anything you wish you could’ve finished but haven’t yet managed to, for whatever reason? And what is the all-important hook, the thing you just can’t resist, when it comes time to make a book purchase?

Do tell. I’m all ears.

6 thoughts on “Just Wondering…

  1. aanderand

    I had a post about half done last last evening then we had a power outage. I was making some remarks about staying up late to celebrate you birthday, but the writing bug got you did it.
    Anyway, as I have gotten older I am less tolerant of books that just don’t grab me. The latest fail was Cloud Atlas, I saw the movie trailer and was very intrigued by it. The reviews seem to be all over the place, but I liked what I thought the concept of the book would be, so I waited forever on the library hold list for it. However, I didn’t make it out of the third ‘story’ before I took it back to the library. I did not care for the characters and it appeared to be a really lame attempt at a story about reincarnation. I was hoping for much better.
    I am glad I got you take on 1Q84 because it too intrigued me so I will skip it. Right now I am not reading anything until after NaNo. But, I am going to delve into a new genre, Jacqueline Carey has a new book out, Dark Currents, that I read the first chapter of online. I seems like a fun read and I have Her Sweetest Downfall by Rebecca Hamilton on my kindle.
    There have been many a book that I wanted to throw across the room with poor endings. Those make me wish I had never started them. There are others that I started and walked away from not forever, just needed a break. Neil Gaiman’s, American Gods, is one of those, some day I will finish it when I am in the right mood. I guess my mood really makes the final decision when I pick out a book.
    Looking at the first line of your post, I saw something this morning and is ‘overmorrow’ a real word, meaning the day after tomorrow? Happy writing.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Oh, *please* give ‘American Gods’ another go. I love, love, love that book so much! I hadn’t thought that your mood, or state of mind perhaps, when you’re book buying can make all the difference to your choices, but of course that’s vital, too.

      ‘Overmorrow!’ Yep, a real word – but archaic now. It did mean ‘the day after tomorrow’, I think. Not completely sure, to be honest! I can’t even think of an example of its usage, right now. *feels like a bad ex-academic* 🙂

  2. Kate

    [Aside: I Love taking phrases and thinking about them literally. “I’m all ears” makes me smile.]

    This is probably a poor time to respond to one of your posts. Firstly, because I don’t have anything relevant to add and secondly because my mind is still entangled in your “Power of Love” post (might revisit that). Oh, and HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Didn’t get to that one until today either.

    So, why AM I writing this? I think it’s because I’m NOT a reader*. Books daunted me as a child. This started with a physical inability to read, that grew into avoiding books altogether because I fell behind the reading-age standard. This then went undetected because I was articulate and teachers presumed I *could* read well and because I actively maintained the illusion.

    But I always loved writing.

    My predisposition to love writing and avoid reading carried on into my adulthood. I’m a writer who’s not a reader *sharp intake of breath*. And this is BAD. Any how-to-write advice will tell you that reading more makes you write better. I know this will be my Achilles’ heel.

    And I’m a slow reader. When I do take the time to read, it takes too long and I resent it – it feels like time that I could spend writing. I’m not very good at writing though because I haven’t read enough. It’s like “Catch 22” (I haven’t read that either).

    I did feel a little envious when I read your post (and “Some Saturday Reading”) because I can’t share in your joy. I seem mostly unable to experience the anticipation of looking at a book with a not-yet-creased spine without a hint of anxiety. But there’s no point being sad about this. It is what it is. I will keep writing and I’ll endeavour to read more. I’ll also try not to punish myself for shelving books I’m not enjoying. I must let myself be fussy, if it means I will read.

    Anyhow, I really admire those who ARE readers, it’s a gift.

    *Though apparently, I’m a reader of your posts 🙂

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      I’m actually in awe of a person who writes as well as you do without having a background of incessant reading. You’re amazing! I’m fully aware that the only reason I can use the English language correctly (most of the time) is because I was born with a book in my hand. I read from an early age, and I was assessed as having an exceptionally high reading aptitude at the age of 7. The teacher basically told my parents I was reading at adult level at an age when a lot of kids are still having their parents read to them! I was never taught the rules of grammar at school – I learned everything I know from reading. To this day, when people ask me to check something they’ve written for errors, I can tell them what’s right and what’s wrong, but not *why* something is right or wrong. I don’t know the rules, I just know what words are supposed to look like!

      I’m sad to read your story, though, because books gave me so much joy as a child, and that joy has infused through my entire life. Nothing makes me happier than seeing an as-yet-uncreased spine, and I hope that you’ll feel the same way, one day. But even if not, your writing gives the impression that you’re a person who loves language, so even if you don’t develop a love for reading, I hope you never stop writing.

      Thank you for reading my posts! I am doubly appreciative of the time you’ve taken, not only to read my words, but also to write such a wonderful response, and I think you can safely chuck the ‘writing tips’ books out the window. You’re a wonderful writer. I wish you luck and success with your work, and your words.

      (Oh, and I haven’t read ‘Catch 22’ either. It’s one of those books I keep meaning to read, but it never quite manages to make it to the top of my to-be-read pile!)

      1. Kate

        Thank you for your kind words and *really* thoughtful reply. I’m touched *hug*. I think that I view my writing fairly realistically when I say – I have much growing to do. Even in reading your words I’m wondering why I didn’t think to write ‘as-yet-uncreased’ (or even just ‘uncreased’!). Words do not flow easily for me – I’ve turned self-editing into an extreme sport. I’d be embarrassed to tell you how long this one paragraph has taken me to write. [But I’m getting better as I’ve recently discovered free-writing. Yes, finally evidence that I’ve been living in a space-time void].

        Your writing is magic and I enjoy learning from you. I’m all eyes.

      2. SJ O'Hart Post author

        😀 *beams*

        I can’t tell you how much that last sentence means to me. You’ve basically made my entire life complete, just there. Thank you so much! *hugs back*

        Keep writing! One word, then another word, then another… just don’t get downhearted, or fearful, or unsure of yourself. I really don’t think you know how talented you are. I hope you will, one day. We all have growing to do, but only the really wise souls among us are aware of how much growing they have to do. 🙂

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