I always used to finish books even when they weren’t hitting the mark. In the last few years, however, I’ve felt freer to abandon a book, or lay it aside for another time. The first chapter or two may not grab me. I may develop a knee-jerk distaste for the characters or quality of the prose. Every reader has been there. But sometimes it’s not about any of those things—it’s about where I am, or the rest of the world is, at a point in time.
Among my friends are many very bright people who are highly serious readers. When my head-set is right, I can thoroughly enjoy something as meaty, dense, and character-driven as Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. But it can be hard to take on the angst and dysfunction of a set of fictional characters, wrapped up in their own confused heads or overwhelmed by what they can’t control, if you’re on tenterhooks yourself.
Few really fine books are on my “abandoned’ list, but it may shock you that I never finished All the Light We Cannot See or Suite Française. Both of these books are masterful, full of brilliant, heartbreaking prose and the kind of tension that keeps you reading into the wee hours. The problem for me, at the time I started these, was the depth of the agony that lay therein, coupled with the fact that a lot was going on in our own lives. I was an English major; I acknowledge the life-affirming aspect of tragedy. But because I engage so fully in what I read, there are times when I need something less gut-wrenching, less historically or socially or culturally important. Less painful. Yes, we read to learn, to grow, to empathize… life is not a fairy tale. But sometimes, we need to read to escape, find comfort, or even [she said unabashedly] to have fun.
I value any writer’s ability to create a well-told tale that, while not devoid of worthwhile life lessons, can lift me out of almost any malaise. I love a master story-teller, who weaves a tale so skillfully that I can get to know the characters by walking with them, not by being inside their heads, soaking up all of their fears and darkness and character flaws. Perhaps that’s because in real life, I’ve learned to judge people more by what they do than what they say—which, I can assure you, was not easy.
It’s fashionable these days to talk about “meeting people where they are.” I’ve no doubt that this expression will ultimately go the route of “low hanging fruit” and other such catch phrases that end up overused—and misused—to the point of meaninglessness. But books, well chosen, actually can meet you where you are, when you most need them to.
Comments and shares welcome. More on favorite writers in future posts!