By now you’ve probably all figured out that I own more books than I’ll ever be able to read – unless I live to be 100 with my eyesight and brain intact. Of course, I don’t care that I have too many books. Seriously, I don’t. And I no longer have any real angst over putting aside books that I don’t like. I give them a fair shake and then, well, I send them to The Book Graveyard.
Books are like a relationship.
I am superficial. I am attracted to the pretty. (Don’t judge me.) I like a nice cover and a good blurb. I like a book that sucks me in from the opening lines and holds me by the throat until the final pages. Okay, wait a minute, that sounds a bit like I am attracted to psychopaths.
Some books demand a little more from you. They aren’t superficial; they want a relationship with you. And they make you work for it. Often times I start a book and, for whatever reason, I just don’t get into them. The Book Thief springs to mind. I also set aside The Knife of Never Letting Go because after the first couple of lines, which I loved, I just wasn’t feeling it. I returned to both of those books after a short hiatus and as many of you know, I have raved about them incessantly. Other books challenge you from the start and keep challenging you until the final page is turned. I think of A.S. Byatt’s Possession.
So, what is it then? Why are some books hard work, but worth the effort, while others are not? Why do books that don’t grab you one day, seem un-put-down-able a few days later? Why are some books re-readable year after year?
Here is a list of reasons I will break up with my book.
1. Style over substance. Okay, like I said, I am attracted to the pretty. But I am also more – how should I say this – seasoned. I am less enthralled by a beautifully written book with nothing to say. It doesn’t take long for the pretty to wear off. I’ll compare it to being at the bar. Across the room you see this gorgeous guy. You make eye contact. Then you realize he isn’t actually looking at you; he’s looking at his reflection in the mirror behind you. A book that works so hard to be literary, to impress, but is really just naval gazing loses my interest pretty fast.
2. Unbelievable characters. I don’t have to like the characters, but I do have to believe in them. Even if the author has chosen to put them in crazy situations, I want to share their journey. I can’t travel with characters who fail to earn my respect or admiration or sympathy. So, I’m back at the bar. Handsome guy across the room. Eye contact made. You move towards each other. He buys you a drink. Then he starts talking and after about five minutes you realize he’s as dumb/self-involved/humourless/dull… as a pet fence. You stop listening to him because you stop caring about him. Characters like that.
3. S-L-O-W/tooquick plot. Not every novel is driven by plot. Some stories don’t depend on what happens as much as to whom it happens. I don’t have a preference. Pacing is everything. Back at the bar, you’ve consumed your drink(s); there’s potential. And then he sticks his tongue down your throat. Whoa, buddy, didn’t see that coming! Timing is everything. If you are building suspense, build it. If your characters are going to do the horizontal mambo, let them take their time; but if nothing happens for page after page after freakin’ page while the author describes cutlery and grass clippings, sorry, it’s over. Or, if without any character development or too much exposition the book lands me in an unreasonable place, we’re through.
4. Bad writing. Come on. Who is going to slog through a poorly written book? Not me. Not anymore. It’s amazing to me that these things get published! I mean, Twilight, okay. New Moon. Seriously!? And two more after that? Yikes. Books like that come with buzz – like your handsome friend at the bar. Until he opens his mouth and, dude, you need some breath mints or something.
I might give a book a second chance. I have, too, because sometimes I’m not on my game. Or – my bar friend is all that and a bag of chips, but I’m just not in the mood. Other books have languished on my shelves for years and years because I have it in my head that I should read them: William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault, which I have attempted more than once and never get past page 50; 0r Stephen King’s The Stand, which always flummoxes me with too many characters; or Jayne Anne Phillips’ Shelter, which I’ve owned for 20 years, tried to read on several occasions and still can’t get into. I just can’t seem to quit those books. Yet. They’re like that guy at the bar – not so flashy, kind of awkward, tries too hard – but you keep giving them another chance to impress you.
The perfect book is like the perfect relationship. All the stars align. You’re ready for each other and you come together with realistic expectations which are perfectly met. Sure, there might be rough patches, but you work through them. And when you finish that final page, you take that book with you in your heart. Like a good partner. Okay – maybe even better.