I just set a new reading speed record for myself. Not the fastest I’ve ever read a book, but the slowest – three weeks to read a 350 page mystery, the kind that usually takes me fewer than three days. I only finished it in that time because I needed to read another book for a reading group and was running out of time; the most I can handle is two books at once, the second being the audio going in my car. I didn’t finish the book for reading group in time either, although that one was Possession by A. S. Byatt and definitely slower going than my usual fare.
I kept losing track of both the plot and the characters. Who was that guy again? Flip back. Scan. Flip back. Scan. Oh yeah – he’s the police detective working with the main character, a private investigator, in one of the towns which may have a crime related to the main inquiry. Usually, if I need to refresh my memory about a character, I can remember the approximate place in the book where he appeared. I always claim that my mind and fingers with a paper book are faster and easier than any electronic search. But this time, I almost wished that I was using my e-reader. I often hadn’t a clue where to start looking. The character(s) just hadn’t registered at all.
At this point one might wonder why I bothered to finish such an awful book, one that obviously was not compelling or well-written. I stayed with it because I suspected that the failings were not the author’s, but mine. The author has been praised by other authors I respect (and I don’t mean just jacket blurbs), and the start of a new series was an opportunity to try her work. This book was at least her fifth from a major publisher. None of this means that I should like it, but it does indicate that she is not an amateur who can’t handle plot or characterization. So why was it so difficult to finish this book?
My own inability to focus is the culprit. It’s one of those unsettled times when too many things are going on at home and work, most of which are incomplete for reasons outside my control but which require that I stay on top of them. My mother would have said “too many irons in the fire”; my husband says “too many windows open.” When I sit down to read and try to forget the pressures for a while, my mind starts jumping to the details of daily life that need to be remembered and soon pages have gone by with nothing retained from the reading. I’m not complaining. Life gets like this sometimes, and always gets better. I have a badly needed holiday approaching, the preparation for which (home, business, travel agenda) is part of the problem , but which I know will refresh my outlook. It’s not fair to blame an author for not being able to penetrate my overloaded brain.
How often do we reject an author for reasons unrelated to the quality of the work? I am reminded that I refused to read Dark Places by Gillian Flynn because I found Sharp Objects so repulsive. I read Gone Girl because I wanted to know what all the buzz was about. Gone Girl is certainly unsettling, but I was fascinated rather than repulsed. I realized then that my problem with Sharp Objects was my own squeamishness about the subject matter. Another reader would not be so disturbed, and would be able to enjoy the excellent writing. One member of our reading group could not get through Middlesex because the notion of hermaphrodism was just too disconcerting. The rest of us were not bothered in the least.
Our individual distastes for certain subjects are probably not going to change. Sometimes, though, our discomfort with a topic is situational. Years ago, I was astonished at how adamant a friend was in condemning The Horse Whisperer as a “piece of trash.” She and I usually enjoyed the same books, and although I wouldn’t have called it great literature, it was an enjoyable read with a satisfying ending (changed, I should mention, and to the detriment of the entire story, by Hollywood). I later learned that she had just discovered that her husband was having an affair. No wonder this plot was distressing! There are several people in Cleveland right now who would not find a thriller about a serial kidnapper of young women entertaining reading. Life’s ordeals can put us in a place, either temporarily or permanently, where certain subject matter does not lend itself to an enjoyable reading experience.
My own experiences have taught me that when I find a particular book unsatisfactory, I need to consider the reasons beyond “It didn’t grab me” or “I found it distasteful.” If the writer’s style or consistent choice of subject matter is not to my liking, then I won’t waste my time in the future. But if the author happened to write one novel involving a subject that makes me uncomfortable, or if my own distracted mind or current life situation kept me from giving the work my full attention, I will try at least one more of her works. It might not be the author’s weaknesses; it may be mine.