But in the last two months I’ve fired three of the books I was reading: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, and The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison.
I LOVE to read and I consume several books every month—mostly novels, memoirs, and essay collections. It stands to reason that occasionally I’ll pick up a dud. But three in a row? What’s going on?
Why I Set Aside Those Books
At first, I read with enthusiasm, but I stopped enjoying myself about 80 percent of the way through The Signature of All Things. I made it through only 60 percent of The Invention of Wings and about 20 percent of The Empathy Exams.
Reading historical fiction and learning about unfamiliar cultures usually appeals to me. For a while, I enjoyed those aspects in all three books. Soon, however, the level of detail each author incorporated stopped being fascinating and turned tedious. I just don’t want to know that much about moss (Gilbert), the infighting among abolitionists (Monk Kidd), or peculiar subcultures (Jamison).
I enjoy character-driven stories. Each of the book’s main character (and the narrator in the memoir-based essays in The Empathy Exams) is unusual and had the potential to be interesting. While I was curious about the main characters, each had a quality that was fundamentally off-putting. I stopped wanting to spend time with those people.
Is It Me? Is It Them? Does It Matter?
1. Life is too short. I’m not going to waste time on books I don’t enjoy. There are too many good, satisfying books I could be reading instead.
2. I no longer care why a book doesn’t meet my expectations—it’s still fired. I used to assume that if a book was disappointing, that the failing was probably mine instead of the author’s—perhaps I wasn’t intellectual or sophisticated enough.
However, in the last decade I’ve read too many mediocre books, so I no longer blame myself. Too often I’ve thought, “Wow! How did that get published?” The publishing industry has been changing rapidly in the last decade, and publishers are risk-averse. If one book is successful they try to clone it (e.g., vampire novels). Other times publishers invest in concept books in which the premise is interesting but the writing isn’t strong (e.g., The Hunger Games). Plenty of good books are still being published, but finding them has gotten harder, especially when only a handful are featured in reviews and blogs.
3. I need to rely on reviewers less. Or I need to find reviewers whose taste is more similar to mine. I read reviews of the three books mentioned earlier, and yet, I was disappointed.
I’ve learned to dig into Amazon and Goodreads’ reviews, but I disregard their suggested reading lists. Just because I read XYZ, doesn’t mean I want to read another book with the exact same subject matter.
I take the reviews in the New York Times Review of Books and Washington Post with a grain of salt (or a whole box?) Their critics are often captivated by the literary experiments some authors engage in. The book may be a clever exercise but if it fails at telling a good story, I’m disappointed.
Reading is too important to give up, but I do wish I had a better way to choose books. How do you discover the gems? Do you ever fire the books you’re reading books? Why?