Saturday, January 07, 2017

100 Books Interlude: If a book feels like work, it's not worth reading.

Last night, when I got home from our weekly trip to the pool I went downstairs to my desk in the lower level and brought up two new books to start reading.

We go swimming almost every Friday night, the boys and I, something I decided to do a while back when I wanted to make Friday nights special.  When I was a kid, Friday nights were "Hamburger Night," a night when Mom and Dad would cook us burgers on the Supergriddle (TM, no doubt) and we would eat burgers and chips -- actual potato chips, or sometimes Doritos!-- while watching TV with them in the living room, instead of boring old regular nonburger dinner at the kitchen table with no chips, me sitting next to my brother Bill bumping elbows because I was left-handed and he was right-handed and my parents for reasons unknown to me never changed our seating pattern in 17 years.  My parents were not top-notch in the parenting department.

Anyway, Swimming Night is the new Hamburger Night: we eat dinner, clean up, and then the boys and I head off to one of the two swimming pools we can use via our health club memberships. When the weather is nice, we walk to the near one, just under a mile away. When it's not nice, we drive to that one or to the much farther away (but more beloved by Mr F) "Dolphin Pool," the one 20 minutes away which has a zero-depth kiddie pool AND a Dolphin-statue fountain and a warm-water pool all in one room.

The reason I got the two new books has both a lot to do and nothing to do with Swimming Night.

The main reason I got two new books was that the main book I'd been reading -- since before Xmas -- was The Trees by Ali Shaw. The Trees is not a bad book in most senses: it's got an interesting premise (one day a bunch of trees just grow out of the ground and wreck all the buildings and roads and whatnot, leaving most people dead and a few people thinking wtf) and the writing itself isn't bad, but despite those two things going for it, The Trees is not a good book, using 'good' in the only sense that it can have when related to books: worth bothering to read.

The Trees is slow, and focuses on characters who are both one-dimensional and unlikeable, but unlikeable in slow, boring, one-dimensional ways.  I was roughly halfway through the book and nearly nothing had happened.  The first chapter, when the trees almost literally erupt out of the ground, is a good start, but after that, the characters are just walking, and thinking, and talking, and whenever something seems about to happen it almost never does, with rare exceptions like when the foursome that has formed watches while one of them shoots a man in the head for killing her brother.
There are hints that something bigger is going on, even, than trees erupting out of nowhere. There are tiny stick-figure things that show up from time to time (and do nothing). There are prehistoric (or at least from the Woolly Mammmoth era, which is prehistoric, right?) animals suddenly appearing (and doing nothing).  But it's all so much nothing.

Meanwhile, every character has -- as every character must, in such books -- one animating facet to them and little else.  Adrien, the main character, is a loser. That is literally his shtick: he doesn't like life and wants to just sit and watch westerns while his wife is in Ireland probably having an affair for which even Adrien doesn't blame her.

Hannah, a woman who I think we meet shortly after the trees show up trying to talk people into helping her save a particular tree that has damaged a church or something, loves nature. That's her thing, and she's almost annoyingly upbeat, meds-adjusting-level upbeat, until she shoots that guy in the head for having shot her brother, at which point she hits the depressive phase and won't do much but eat some stale mushrooms in her backpack.

Seb, Hannah's son, loves technology and the Asian girl that they meet up with who is skilled in woodcraft because she was taught that by a guy in California before her dad took her back to Tokyo with his girlfriend, making her aggressively antisocial to everyone in the world except a baby fox, and Seb, whose nose she broke at the point where I stopped reading. It wasn't that point precisely which made me stop reading (the girl then goes ahead and kisses Seb, through the blood, even though it was pretty apparent right up until that moment that she did not want to kiss Seb and the kiss was entirely out of character for her and the moment.)

The characters vacillate between this is terrible we can't possibly go on and come on guys buck up little campers and make the most of this which okay I suppose maybe we all would do that in such a situation, but the fact that it might be realistic doesn't make it entertaining any more than every snapshot on a cameraphone is art. There is no real rhythm to when they do that. (The exception is the Asian girl, whose name I can't for the life of me remember even though she was a major part of the book and I was reading it a bit last night.)

While we were swimming on Swimming Night, I kept having my mind wander back to The Trees, but not in a good way. It wandered back because the day before I'd gotten a couple of additional books at the library that had finally come in after my hold, and I really, really, wanted to read them. I'd taken a stab at reading The Trees in the interlude between dinner and leaving for Swimming Night, and read a few pages, before getting bored and going to play Plants vs. Zombies 2. 

So at the pool, I kept thinking I should just finish The Trees quick and then read the new books, but that thought literally made me sad and a bit tired.  That's when I realized that since starting The Trees, I'd read four other books (not even counting audiobooks, which aren't really competition for physical books), and that I didn't really want to read The Trees any more.  Not even a little.

So when I got home, I committed and got the new books up and put the old terrible books down, before my mind could tell me I was a quitter. That's how it feels sometimes when I give up on a book, like I'm a quitter.

But now, this morning, in the clear, minus-12-degrees light of day, I started thinking Why am I the bad person here?  Why should I feel bad that a book couldn't even be good enough to want me to read it?

I have a pretty low tolerance for my culture. I've been watching Spider-Man 3, the one where Toby Maguire shows how he's getting evil by parting his hair on the other side (goatees are so 90s),

It's easier to carry around in public than a swivel chair and a white cat.

 and I recognize that it is not a particularly good Spider-Man movie, and I rewatched Summer School recently enough to recognize an actor from it when he showed up, 30+ years later, in a television show.  I'm not a snob, so if something isn't holding my interest that probably means that thing is too awful to appeal to someone who literally checks periodically to see if he can get the television show Herman's Head to watch again.

It's not my fault or a failing in me if your book can't hold my attention, and I don't think readers should feel bad about not working their way through books that aren't worth it. On IO9 recently there was a list of "10 Books You Pretend To Have Read (And Why You Should Actually Read Them)."  The list was nonsensical in its very premise: do scifi fans really pretend to have read scifi books? I don't. I've made no bones about the fact that I think everyone telling me I have to read Isaac Asimov ought to shut up, his books sound boring and stupid to me and I don't want to read them. (Foundation is number 4 on the list.)

Worst spec fiction cover ever...

... until this one.

In the list, various 'experts' talk about why people should read these books. Of Cryptonomicon, one says "It's so long, and so dense." Something called Dhalgren by Samuel Delany was described as   a "monumental achievement" which most people haven't read and is "a lot of work."

Infinite Jest is on there. I tried reading that, twice -- wasting seventeen actual dollars of my money on the book back when seventeen dollars was a lot of money to me, representing my book budget for two months.  It was awful. The IO9 'expert' admits most people don't read this one, either, even though they own it.

Worst of all was the reason for reading Gravity's Rainbow:

This is sort of an odd one. Many of the authors we contacted for this article named Gravity’s Rainbow immediately as the book that everybody pretends to have read — but then they all admitted that they, too, had not actually read it. “I don’t believe that anyone has actually finished Gravity’s Rainbow. Thomas Pynchon has spent decades waiting for his audience to laugh at that cool twist right at the end, and is now starting to wonder. I’ve started it five times,” says Paul Cornell, author of the comic This Damned Band and the Shadow Police series of books.
So why should you read Gravity’s Rainbow where some of the coolest genre writers have failed? Several people said they’ve found the parts they were able to get through immensely enriching.

The parts they were able to get through. It reminds me of all the time I spent (wasted time) trying to read Ulysses before giving up on that dreck.

Why do we say bad books that are 'a lot of work' and are difficult to read are so valuable? I have read books that are dense -- Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco (who used to be good before he got bad) comes to mind.  I loved that book.  It packed a lot of information into it but was good, and not a tough read at all. (Eco's The Name Of The Rose was terrible: another one I started and didn't finish).  Catch-22, the best book of all time, is dense and packed with information and has important things to say, but isn't difficult to read at all.  American Gods: dense, important, majestic, easy to read.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, like The Lord Of The Rings before it, is a long and carefully-thought-out book about magic, with its own internal system that appears realistic because it is so carefully crafted, and a range of characters that is broad, if not vast.  It makes the IO9 list for some reason (as does Dune) even though both Strange and Dune are books that pull you into them and make you want to read.

Books that are work are not books that are meant to be read.  My philosophy textbook in undergrad was dense and difficult, but that was because it was a textbook, and learning philosophy was my job.  Why should reading a novel about trees taking over England be the same level of difficulty as learning calculus?  One of the experts on that IO9 article opines that we don't seem to value working at our reading. That's Jeff Vandermeer, whose Area X trilogy was challenging in a good way: it didn't spell things out for you and didn't cut corners and I'm not sure I've figured it all out yet even, but it was one of the greatest books I ever read because it was a great book.

Long books are okay. Dense books are okay. Books that present mysteries for you to figure out or which don't just explain things right up front are okay.  Lots of great authors know how to write long dense books that make the reader invest some mental energy in the story which nonetheless are fun to read.  Why should we bother with books that demand that mental energy be devoted to the very task of reading, as opposed to parsing the story.

There is a difference between challenging and bad.  Books like Infinite Jest are bad because they are poorly written and present the task of reading as the challenge of the book: they make reading the book difficult apparently because the author wanted to do so.  (S by JJ Abrams was like this: I gave up on it because the effort of reading that book, which sounded so good in premise, was not worth whatever payoff it promised.) Books like The Trees are bad along the same lines. There might be a noteworthy idea somewhere in the trees, but that idea is wrapped in a tedious story about unlikeable people whining their way through an English forest, a story that is not challenging in the sense that it requires me to think, and is not challenging in the sense that it presents ideas I might find difficult to agree with or comprehend.  It's challenging in the sense that a 200-mile drive through Kansas is challenging: you just have to keep plodding along in hopes that eventually the scenery will be worthwhile.

I'm surprised that I felt bad about stopping reading the book.  I'd thought I'd mostly gotten over that, and was willing to abandon books more quickly.  Maybe I saw more of a glimmer of hope in The Trees, the way I used to think, about mid-season, that just possibly maybe the Buffalo Bills might make the playoffs this year before deciding no, they didn't.  But now I'm more angry that I felt bad about it, because I feel like that's the author's fault, too: he showed me something that had promise, that I felt like might be worth it, and I even invested considerable time in it. And yet even halfway through, Shaw couldn't make me want to go on reading his book any more.

That's not my fault. It's his. I once said, after watching Superstar with our kids, that the director of the movie owed me two hours of my life back.  I figure I blew about 12 hours of my life on Shaw's book, and he owes me twelve hours back. If life were fair, Ali Shaw would come over to my house and do 12 hours worth of chores so that I could spend those 12 hours reading something that was worth my time.

1 comment:

Andrew Leon said...

Um... I had something I wanted to say from early on in the post, but I got interrupted so many times I don't remember what that was.
Probably something about The Casual Vacancy, which was long and dense and full of unlikable people. I'm glad I read it, I suppose, but I wouldn't ever recommend it to anyone.


For whatever reason, I find myself forcing myself to read bad books way more frequently than I probably should. At least I always have some reason for it when I do it now rather than the old reason of refusing to quit a book once I started it.