Why to read, when not to read – Part II

Awesomely, one of the New Yorker weblogs published a post musing on another very new-to-me reason for reading, not reading, and/or finishing a book during the same week as the HRSFANS-discuss book recommendation thread I wrote about in July. (By the way, I have started—barely—to collate the recommendations list on the wiki. Please help! “‘Paperbacks-for-the-road’ Recommendations” is linked through from the “Index to the Awesome.”) I considered in parallel from the start Ms. Minkel’s apparent compulsion to show herself “an adult” in her reading life and Tony’s warning of potential future bad volumes in good-so-far series, so here come my musings specifically on the former.

An extract:

On one hand, we have big, painful books we feel compelled to see through to the end. On the other, the books we’ve sort of read and glibly lie about having finished. Both of these seem tied to some sort of reading scorecard, one in which the readers are measured and judged by—perhaps even more than—the books that they’ve read. …

But is the reading scorecard internal or external? Or are the two so entwined that it’s impossible to answer that question?

Ms. Minkel could mean the “we” impersonally: “On one hand, we have [here an example of] big, painful books we feel compelled to see through to the end,” but the rest of her post seems to indicate that she does speak as “we” for herself and her assuredly well-read readers (the comments posted seem to presume this, too).

Yet to me this entire concept of a compulsion to finish a book (painful or not) is foreign, bizarre, and surely detrimental to reading health. Does it ring a bell for anyone? Can you explain how this compulsion could make sense inside one’s own head (or how it can compel regardless of sense)?

People who’ve read my posts before may have noticed that I, if anything, tend to brag about my willingness to drop a book at any point, as if it’s macho, or stoic, to leave the story ever unfinished in my own mind. Come to think, in some cases it does feel internally macho, in that I’m deliberately holding myself back from the experience because I do care and yet don’t feel it would be advantageous to continue (Big Love after “Pilot”, new Battlestar Galactica after “Bastille Day”, A Reliable Wife more than 2/3 through, and to a lesser extent The Pillars of the Earth after 300p); in other cases it does feel internally stoic in that I’m accepting that I don’t care a whit about the next phase of the story and would rather turn to more enjoyable pursuits, without necessarily faulting the author(s) for being unable to keep my interest (Potter V 70p in without a single page free of people yelling at each other, Angel after “Reprise”, Farscape after “Season of Death”). When I discovered Ms. Minkel’s post, I immediately opened a chat to a friend whom I’ve mentioned earlier as a counterpoint to my reading style: he once devoured half of War and Peace in two days as escape reading. I opened the conversation (minor typos & grammatical quirks corrected):

me: you’ll have a COMPLETELY different reaction to this than I will …

you won’t think this whole concept of “we have big, painful books we feel compelled to see through to the end” is foreign, bizarre, counter-to-one’s-reading-health

he:i think that reading is just less painful for me

because i read so fast

… i mean, i am a bit compulsive about finishing books, but that’s more my obsessive nature than it is powering through

what would take willpower is putting them down

it’s not that i feel compelled to finish a book because i started it. it’s because i like reading and don’t like putting books down.

me: Usually a reading struggle for me just means my psyche isn’t keeping pace

I still don’t see how liking reading is a reason to keep reading a story you’re not liking—there’s hundreds of others available just as easily (in your case, without even putting down the device if you’re reading on the iPhone)

he: well, but you want to know how it ends

as i said, i don’t task switch well

if i’m in the middle of a video game

i find myself playing it for several more hours

me: no, I only want to know how it ends if I’m interested in the story

and even then, that’s not the important part

If I wanted to know how every story ends, I’d be even more of a basket case about keeping contact with everybody than I already am—and I never would have cancelled my FB account due to lack of interest

Read for your self, not for your private morals or for their public display. Reading is between you, the story, its characters and/or its world, and the author. Everything and everyone outside is just details—and if they aren’t, read something else.

5 thoughts on “Why to read, when not to read – Part II

  1. Heh. For me it really depends on what I’m reading.

    I read fantasy novels for the pure joy of it. They’re fast (even the long ones), and easy to read, and I almost always finish them once I’ve started, whether or not I particularly like them, just because I can’t put them down and I want to know what happens.

    On the second hand, as an English major, I feel as though I’ve got a notional obligation to read classics. Not that I actually /do/ it all that often on my own initiative, but I feel guilty for not having read more of them and am grateful for external incentives to do so. It’s partly professional development, partly a feeling that my world would be broadened by being familiar with more classic literature. Now as it happens, I don’t think I actually have trouble finishing classics when I start them; I just have trouble picking them up.

    I do have trouble finishing non-fiction. In that case, I feel obliged to read it (and to try to finish it) because I’m not reading for the joy of reading, but in order to know the information contained therein. I like understanding stuff about the world, even when reading about it feels like work. I guess I also feel this way about academic reading. But I frequently don’t enjoy the actual reading process, so a tension exists between short-term gratification and long-term fulfilment.

  2. (D’oh, just realized that posting HRSFANS blog responses on livejournal is probably not the most efficient thing. Reposted here?)

    Wait, so you stopped watching BSG after only 3 episodes? I’m intrigued by this in light of your later suggestion that you don’t necessarily care about how a story ends if you’re not interested in that story. For some reason I’d assume that if you don’t mind stopping a show in the middle (when you don’t like it), you’d also not mind stopping a show that you do like as soon as it starts going downhill.

    (You likewise suggested, in an earlier post [ed. or maybe this was someone else? I forget!] that we ought to read each book in a series on its own terms. I wholeheartedly agree; e.g., Xenocide and Children of the Mind do not somehow decrease the quality of Ender’s Game. But how then do BSG seasons 3 and 4 decrease the quality of BSG seasons 1 and 2?)

    I tend to find that I can put up with a lot of mediocrity when reading (or watching) a series that started off well, in part because it can be enjoyable to read about (or watch) a familiar set of characters, in part because of the hope that things will get better. I enjoyed season 4 of BSG somewhat simply because it allowed me to experience the lives of characters I knew and loved (and of course I was always hoping it’d regain its lost brilliance).

  3. Mike—yes, I bailed on new BSG after the second evening (1-miniseries, 2-episodes 1-3) of Dennis’s 2006 campaign “Get other people into BSG before Season 2 [2.5] starts, so I can then have a group with which to watch Season 2 [2.5].” But the reason I felt it “would not be advantageous to continue” wasn’t that I was worried the show would jump the shark anytime in the next 2 years, but rather that I was afraid for my own personal sake of the projected emotional energy required to deal with the characters’ problems. I do not get that fear except when the characters’ problems are so densely and richly and sensitively presented that I’m sure I could never just watch things happen to them without personal involvement. I tend to refer to this as a story exceeding my threshold for The Terrible.

    It’s not really intuitive to stop merely when a line along a continuum gets crossed, but I’ve learned I have to for literal self-protection, because I can get pretty compulsive about the stories I do respect. So, although the opposite situation is an equally valid use for the word, it does seem to me a macho action on my part to do what’s good for me.

    What scared and depressed me most about the BSG characters’ problems, since it might be of interest to you, was the haunting of Gaius Baltar. Yeah, he’s a complete scumbag, but he also was obviously a deeply pitiful wreck of a human being.

    Farscape was a very different divorce. Other than the gorgeously distinctive visuals, what I had always adored most about the show was that the writers really, truly sussed what made their characters tick … and communicated it so, so effectively. My opinion is that the script for “Plan B” could have been written by any Farscape fan who was handed the set-up, since the characters behaved PERFECTLY characteristically throughout. I loved that I could trust Farscape writers to tell the stories that would have happened to the people they’d created for us.

    Season of Death broke that trust–actually, it vaporized that trust. Sure, a fan in pretty much any genre, and certainly in SF/F, has to develop a pretty robust suspension of disbelief about characters coming back from the dead. But Die Me Dichotomy didn’t just kill the best character for an end-of-season cliffhanger so we all knew she might be only “mostly dead”: it killed her 2/3 of the way through the episode and spent the last 1/3 of that episode on a beautiful funeral and the beginnings of long-term grieving for the characters left behind. Then SciFi channel egged on the fans to mourn for two months, until the start of Season 3.

    I couldn’t forgive them that.

    When it came to the last miniseries, though, The Peacekeeper Wars, I did watch it, deliberately forgetting anything in between. I enjoyed the chance to see the characters play once more … like you said about BSG Season 4.

  4. My reaction is slightly different, because I’m a writer, and always knew I wanted to be one, so my reading—even for my own pleasure—has often had a practical component: I read primarily because I’m addicted, but also to gather tools. I studied Latin and Greek in college because I thought it would give me a useful toolbox as a novelist, which it did, although not quite in the way I expected, and I’ve tried to acquaint myself with as many good novelists as possible, especially my own language, because I’m at a disadvantage if I don’t know what’s been done before. The process can sometimes be difficult, as it was with Proust and Pynchon and so many others, but I’ve invariably been enriched by the experience. It’s a necessary apprenticeship. (And for what it’s worth, reading even the hardest novel is infinitely easier than writing one.)

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