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Bad Reads

“Leave me alone. I’m reading.” We’ve all said it, and we haven’t said it half as often as we wanted to. Give us a good book, and the world can stay on hold forever.

But how about, “Somebody get me out of this book! Where are the telemarketers when you need them?”

Why do we keep slogging through books we don’t want to read? We of all people, wordsmiths, people of literary judgment! (And in my case, old people. I don’t have decades to waste.)

Lately, I’ve been buzz-bombed by these loser books. The worst of them was called The Matter of the Gods, by Clifford Ando. It purports to be a history of religion in ancient Rome. In a former incarnation, I was a classicist, and mythology was my specialty. So I bought the d***** book. Imagine the ghastliest academese prose, wrenched and decorated to sound arch, while avoiding the dreadful faux pas of actually suggesting any conclusions. That’s MotG.

Why did I finish it? Because every couple of pages, he’d quote an ancient writer I’d never read or drop in a factoid on Roman ritual that was new to me. Drop a trail of M&Ms and I’ll follow you anywhere. It’s the kind of reinforcement that creates drug addicts.

Running in tandem with MotG was Antidote to Venom, by Freeman Wills Crofts. Crofts was one of the most popular mystery writers of the Golden Age, God knows why. I bought it because I’m working on a book that involves snake venom. Crofts’ golden rule seems to be that every thought, speech and action must be reported at least twice. Plans must be explained at length, and then carried out at equal length, in the same sequence. Plod. Plod. Plod. And to top it off, one of his villains has an alibi so unbreakable that Crofts has to give him a religious conversion at the end, to elicit a confession!

Why did I finish it? Sheer bloody-mindedness. Not to be able to finish a book in my own genre and of the period I most admire was too shaming. Also, it had just been reissued. So publishers thought it would sell, right? I should see why, right? I still don’t know.

Then there are the bestsellers everyone else has read. A few years ago, I read Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. It was 944 pages of I-still-don’t-know-what. It had something to do with domestic violence; I figured that much out. It had an alternate universe in it, only it wasn’t all that alternate.

Why did I finish it? This one was almost justified. Murakami’s prose floated me along in a mental state just like that of his confused characters. This stuff was just happening. You couldn’t do anything about it, so you just did the next thing. Which was to read the next sentence. Still, 315 pages would have been enough.

Don’t even ask me about books written by friends.

So, what to do, assuming that you find you can’t just toss the book? Here are my strategies:

  • Demote to bathroom. This worked, eventually, for The Matter of the Gods and Antidote to Venom. The time isn’t wasted, and page by page you get to the end. Please do not tear out completed pages and re-purpose them. That is cruel.
  • Learn to skim. This used to be called speed reading. It doesn’t really work, but you can pretend it does, and if your eyes have traveled over every page, you are only half lying when you say you’ve read it.
  • Arrange an unfortunate accident. This requires a degree of double-think, but what writer lacks that? Reading paperbacks in the bathtub is the easiest method. (Buy an oilier bubble bath.) Leave hardbacks on or near the recycle container. Forget them in waiting areas or on public transportation.

I’m about to start Chris Holm’s The Killing Kind. It’s about a hit man who only hits other hit men. I gobbled down three of his earlier books. I’ll have to find something else to read in the bathroom.

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