Every writer needs to read. A lot. All the successful ones say the same thing: Read promiscuously. Which is all well and good. Those in writing programs are assigned stacks of books that may or may not wind up being relevant. Some books we love, some we don’t. At the time, it’s assumed even tedious books will have a beneficial effect — perhaps showing us what to avoid.
But what about when you’re free and clear of all that? All serious writers continue devouring books — it’s how we’re built. Books — reading, in general — is our secret, nourishing narcotic. I keep at least three books going at any one time: nightstand, bathroom and car. Yes, my car. I don’t read in traffic but I will never be caught without a book, whether it’s in a restaurant, coffee shop, waiting in reception. To be caught without a book is pretty much my worst nightmare.
Unless that book sucks. Then I’m really in trouble. One does what one can to preempt bad books: reading reviews, jacket blurbs, perhaps the first few pages. But every once in a while a bad book slips through, doesn’t it? Denis Johnson once mentioned in an interview how he seldom ever finishes a book — the author loses him, shakes his confidence in the book. Johnson said (paraphrasing here) “If I make it a hundred pages into a book it’s a masterpiece.” He said his interior editor is too strong — “I want to help.”
I’m not so dismissive. I’ll honestly hang in there until the bitter end for most books. I’m no Denis Johnson, for one thing. I have a lot to learn. That’s part of it. I always hope to be surprised. That’s what happened with A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I was almost ready to bail, but around page fifty, I began to see what Walker Percy was talking about in his preface, that this book was pretty damn amazing.
Reasons to bail:
- Preciousness, sentimentality, melodrama.
- Overwriting, too many pointless digressions and run-on sentences.
- Pretentious Prose.
- Transparent Plot.
- Ideological Differences.
This last one is easy to preempt, but occasionally an author’s prejudice, political agenda or even outright misogyny will suddenly become all-too-clear midway through a book. That’s a good reason to hit “eject.” We’ve all heard the complaints about Ayn Rand’s work. But I feel it’s important for me to read (or attempt to read) one of her novels before I join the detractors. Someday.
I can count the books I’ve abandoned on one hand. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace was one. I may revisit it, and I like his other writing. But that particular one? Too many footnotes for me! Not that I have anything against footnotes, per se. Adroit usage of footnotes is certainly possible. For example, Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius employs them very effectively.
I’ve never met anyone who has finished or claims to understand Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce.
Who recommends a book to me has a lot to do with it. Some people I trust implicitly. I had a mentor in my MFA Program at Antioch (Jim Krusoe) and anything he suggests to me is ordered that day. His suggestions rarely mystify, but it’s happened. He suggested Mary Swan’s short story collection The Deep and, I’ll confess, I was relieved to reach the end. But because Jim suggested it I know I’ll give it another try someday.
Which brings up a great point: sometimes it’s not the book. It’s me. Perhaps I wasn’t mature enough to appreciate The Deep. I’m reading The Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges right now and all I can say is it found me at the right time. Ten or twenty years ago? I would’ve probably bailed. I wouldn’t have had the patience required. I’m actually enjoying it very much. The fact Roberto Bolaño said (again, paraphrasing) he could easily spend his entire life “sitting under a table talking to Borges” might have something to do with it. Or was it “sitting under a table reading Borges”? Either way, it influenced the way I approached Borges’ Collected Fictions. I sometimes feel Bolaño’s ghost looking over my shoulder as I read, saying, “Isn’t this fantastic?!” To which I say, “Si!”
Another reason I’m reluctant to bail on a book is simple pride. I’ve kept a list of every book I’ve read since 1990. That’s a handy thing to have, by the way. You’d surprised how many times I’ve appended this list or portions of it to an application or as a way to gain access/credibility with a mentor. I strive to have a good-looking list at the end of each year. I always post it on my Facebook page both as a way influence my friends and followers and, I’ll admit, a sort of boast.
But it’s not just a numbers game; I use that list to go back and revisit certain books, to refresh my memory. Some books need to be reread every few years, like Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov or Women in their Beds by Gina Berriault.
Do I skim the bad books? Rarely. If I’m not going to read carefully, what’s the point? I can speed-read and my retention is very good. But it’s always a sad process. I’d much rather savor each word, each sentence. That’s what I’m in it for. Speed-reading is something I did for assigned books in school. I’m in the habit of note-taking when reading; I use a buck-slip as a bookmark and write down page numbers and a word or two that grabs me. Unless the book sucks — then I’ll speed-read it in one sitting, all the time eyeing that next book, the good one, in my queue.
I asked Jim Krusoe if he ever bailed on books. He said, “All the time.” I imagine the answer is the same from all successful writers. I know I need to be a little less polite, less tolerant of bad writing. After all, there are a lot of great books out there and life is short.
Here are the books I read in 2013. Only one of them truly sucked (and I’m not saying which one):
- The Holden Age of Hollywood—Phil Brody
- Dear Life: Short Stories (story collection)—Alice Munro
- Slouching Towards Bethlehem—Joan Didion
- As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and other stories (story collection)—Alistair MacLeod
- The Topless Tower—Silvina Ocampo
- Bullfighting (story collection)—Roddy Doyle
- Money: A Suicide Note—Martin Amis
- Life A User’s Manual—Georges Perec
- The Notebook—Agota Kristof
- The Dog of the South—Charles Portis
- The Proof—Agota Kristof
- The Third Lie—Agota Kristof
- Jacob von Gunten—Robert Walser
- Crimes in Southern Indiana (story collection)—Frank Bill
- Last Evenings on Earth (story collection)—Roberto Bolaño
- Black Dahlia & White Rose (story collection)—Joyce Carol Oates
- Blood Line (story collection)—David Quammen
- The Jook—Gary Phillips
- Cowboys—Gary Phillips
- Chronicle in Stone—Ismail Kadare
- Bring Me Your Saddest Arizona (story collection)—Ryan Harty
- The Return (story collection)—Robert Bolaño
- Red Cavalry (story collection)—Isaac Babel
- Fitting Ends (story collection)—Dan Chaon
- The Deep (story collection)—Mary Swan
- Stolen Pleasures (story collection)—Gina Berriault
- Volcano and Miracle—Gustaw Herling
- Tenth of December (story collection)—George Saunders
- All That Is—James Salter
- The Fun Parts (story collection)—Sam Lipsyte
- Nothing Gold Can Stay (story collection)—Ron Rash
- Stoner—John Williams
- Lolita—Vladimir Nabakov
- The Buddha of Suburbia—Hanif Kureishi
- The Iliad of Homer—Richmond Lattimore translation
- Under the Volcano—Malcolm Lowry
- Middle Men (story collection)—Jim Gavin
- Geographies of Home—Loida Maritza Perez
- Cat’s Eye—Margaret Atwood
- The Color Master (story collection)—Aimee Bender
- The Question of Bruno (story collection)—Aleksandar Hemon
- The Street of Crocodiles (story collection)—Bruno Schulz
- All Quiet on the Western Front—Erich Maria Remarque
- The Education of Henry Adams—Henry Adams
- Drowning Lessons (story collection)—Peter Selgin
- 179 ways to Save a Novel—Peter Selgin
- The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup—Susan Orlean
- Strait is the Gate—Andre Gide
- Batting for Castro (story collection)—Jim Shepard
- No One Belongs Here More Than You (story collection)—Miranda July
- Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation (biography)—Robert Wilson
- The House of Seven Gables—Nathaniel Hawthorne
- The March—E.L. Doctorow
- The River Swimmer (story collection)—Jim Harrison
- Photo by Brady—Jennifer Armstrong
- We Live in Water (story collection)—Jess Walter
- We Wanted to be Writers: Love, Life and Literature at The Iowa Writers’ Workshop— Eric Olsen & Glenn Schaeffer
- The Red Badge of Courage—Stephen Crane
- Wench—Dolen Perkins-Valdez
- Love and Obstacles (story collection)—Aleksandar Hemon
- Franz Kakfa: The Complete Stories
- See Then Now—Jamaica Kincaid