It’s very rare that I don’t finish reading a book once I have gotten into it. This is partly because I am rather selective on what books I start in the first place; my list of books to read is always rather substantial and I don’t have time to mess around. Now there have definitely been times when I have started reading a book on my list that is considered a “Classic” and, while giving it my best shot, I just haven’t been able to keep at it. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain come to mind. But the relative merits of such books and whether they deserve attention is a discussion for another time. I believe that some books just need to be revisited in the proper season and stage of life.
What I have been thinking about lately, however, are the books that I have no interest in attempting a second time.
I recently returned from spending a week-long vacation at the beach, which was delightful and refreshing. Naturally, I brought a pile of books with me. But to make it a vacation, and distinct from my normal reading regime, I only brought books that are modern, popular, and have been made into movies (though I haven’t actually seen any of them). All of the books had been picked up at thrift stores or those free library boxes, so it wouldn’t matter if they suffered from sand or water damage.
The first book I attempted was Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. I’m not generally one for psychological thrillers, but I’ve been getting more into mysteries and this book, and the movie based on it, have been so popular that I figured it was worth a try. I made it about halfway, 200 pages or so. Then I realized that deceit, marital infidelity, alcoholism, and potential murder were not really the world I wanted to get lost in on my vacation. So I looked up the rest of the plot (I still wanted to know what happened, after all) and moved on.
I decided to go a different route for the next book, and started The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. This one was great at first. The Sci Fi elements of time travel, the questions of free will and “destiny”, were very intriguing, and I was on vacation with my boyfriend and so already feeling that romance vibe. It was a great book for binge-reading while laying in the sun with the ocean stretching out in front of me. But I was only about halfway through when I came back home, and managed to get through just a little further before deciding to put it aside. Reading a Romance at the beach with my boyfriend right next to me is one thing; continuing to read it alone at home, with the fictional drama ramping up, while I am trying to re-acclimate to my normal routines, that’s quite something else. This is why I typically avoid Romance novels, even when they are well-written: I live with a Highly Sensitive nature (look HSPs, if you are curious) and I don’t need to have my emotions played upon just for kicks.
Being the hyper-analytical writer that I am, I’ve been reflecting on what it was about these books that made me put them down. Neither of them were poorly written, as far as mechanics and style. And it’s not just that the subjects were unappealing, too graphic, etc. I just re-read Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange last year and was in the midst of reading Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas right at the beginning of this vacation, so it’s not like I need my books to be “family friendly.” And I can handle family and relationship struggles; I’ve read plenty on that front, too. So how does a book lose my interest?
For me, it always comes back to why we seek out storytelling in the first place. Certainly, there are times we might just want mindless entertainment as a form of escape from our daily lives; but surface level entertainment doesn’t satisfy for very long. And having our emotions constantly revved up, without a significant catharsis or epiphany at the end, only leads to emotional burn out. Besides, isn’t real life emotional enough these days?
We seek out stories because we want answers. We want to draw on the vast wealth of experience, knowledge, and wisdom that other people can offer us, insights we might never come to on our own. There is only so much we can see and experience in our own lives, but stories allow us to see through the eyes of others. But not everyone who is proficient as a storyteller has also the mind of a philosopher or the heart of an artist; not every writer hits real Truth, even when they are actually seeking it.
I can’t say whether these two books I attempted might have some hidden value in them. I also can’t say whether they are just pointless and should be completely passed by. I just know that there was something in each of them that turned me off instinctively.
There are a lot of lies out there in the world, and more often than not the people repeating them are not even aware of the falsehoods they are spreading. They are passing on the “dogmas” that they grew up with or were taught in school. Ideas about relationships, about suffering, about how the world works. There are ideas that we might take for granted just because we have always been surrounded by them, but it’s only when you start to look closer that you find them to actually be rather insubstantial and meaningless. The point of being human, I believe, is to keep questioning, to keep seeking, to sort out what the truth really is and then hold on to it. In the words of G.K. Chesterton, “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” If we find ourselves consuming something that is not as solid as we had hoped, there is no shame in pushing it aside.
There are writers that I acknowledge as being very skilled at their craft, but that doesn’t mean that I want to invite their world view into my own head. Hitler had a way with words, too, but that didn’t mean people should have listened. And the fact that so many did listen, doesn’t make what he was saying any more truthful.
God gave us intellect and reason, as well as natural instincts and a yearning for Truth. We should never be afraid to follow these, even if so many others seem to be going in the opposite direction.
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