One of the joys of not being in graduate school anymore is that I don’t actually have to finish the books that I start.
I almost always have a book in my hands, regardless of whether I am actually in a position to read. I cart them upstairs to bed even if all I plan to do is turn out the lights and fall asleep. I cart them back downstairs in the morning and lay them on the table, where they sit until I put them into my bag and haul them to Home Campus. Eventually I pack up the bag and go to pick up the girls from Not Bad President Elementary, where I have a few minutes to unpack and actually read before the bell rings and they come charging out. And then it’s homework (theirs and mine), dinner, and on to bed, where the cycle begins anew.
For all that, though, I do manage to get a surprising amount of reading done. It preserves what little sanity I have left. The rest I keep in a jar in the back of the kitchen pantry for special occasions when I might need it, such as being audited by the IRS. Otherwise it just gets in the way.
While I have my favorite genres to explore, I have found that the one thing I absolutely require in a book is good writing. Despite being an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy novels, for example, I am no longer willing to put up with a book that might as well have been written by a hamster tap-dancing across the keys even if said hamster has brilliant ideas. Writing matters.
There are a lot of very good writers out there, in fact. Just in the past couple of years I’ve read some things that were just stunningly written – gripping, lyrical, comical, all of the above and more, and elegantly phrased. “Elegant” here is defined as “well-suited to the author’s purpose and the reader’s enlightenment,” which is why I don’t get too upset at grammar as long as the errors are artfully deployed.
But sometimes you just run into a book that makes you want to ingest powerful hallucinogens in order to continue.
I found a likely looking book at a used book sale a while back. It had good reviews on the back, an interesting premise, and it was a buck and a half. It was also Book 1 of 3, so I bought it and scouted around for a while until I found the other volumes at similar used book sales. So for less than five bucks, I had what I thought would be nearly 1800 pages of reading pleasure.
And when I started reading the book, I will admit, the ideas were interesting. Someone could have written a great story using those ideas.
But this wasn’t it. Cloying, trite, full of Portentously Capitalized Phrases and long explanations of things that the characters should have understood instinctively, this was writing that wasn’t good enough to sustain a story and wasn’t bad enough to enter into the Edward Bulwer-Lytton Contest.
I fought my way through a bit more than a hundred pages, and it just wasn’t getting any better. And then I thought to myself, “Self,” I thought, “there is no quiz at the end of this.”
And I put it down.
It was a very strange experience, really. I’m not used to doing that. As I wound my way through the PhD process to become a historian I had to slog my way through any number of books that required hallucinogens that, on my graduate stipend, I could not afford. I had to read those things stone cold sober.
It probably built character. I don’t know why people say that when you have to do something particularly unpleasant. I’d hate to think that my character is constructed of bad books and high school gym class, but there you go.
I ended up reading a very well-written book after that, so it all worked out okay. But I need to get rid of those other books before I pick them up again in a fit of leftover grad school guilt.