A critical reader knows when to quit

CONFESSION: I am a book-snob. Since the age of around 13 I have predominantly read the books you would find in the quiet – I mean classical or “literature” – section of a library. I am not particularly embarrassed about this. One day it will serve me well in a pub quiz, you just wait…

But I have another confession to make: I am also the kind of reader who tends to feel they have to reach the last page of a book. When coupled with my preference for stories of the ‘chunky classic’ variety, this can often make reading tiresome and even un-enjoyable.

Most recently I struggled through Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I read it assuring myself the whole time that it was going to all come together for me on the next page. It never did. I persevered only so I could tick it off my ‘to read list’. Worth it? Nope.

As a reader you approach a “classic” with a certain set of expectations. You know it has earned its status for a reason; you know there is depth and meaning between the lines. You dive in wanting to enjoy it, wanting to identify every piece of symbolism along the way. Hoping to build up some grand analysis by the time you emerge, so that you can recommend it to all of your friends. But sometimes it just does nothing for you. You find yourself heavily wading through a murky plot, where all the treasure the critics claim to have found is either out of reach, or appears disappointingly glorified. This can often be disheartening, even alienating. ‘What have I missed?’ ‘What did that mean?’

Enough is enough. I am making it my resolution from now on to be more willing to give up on books that aren’t doing much for me, providing they aren’t on my university syllabus that is…

An author has the opening few chapters of a book to convince you that their story is worth a considerable investment of your time. Whenever you pick up a book you are making a purchase: trading your time in hope of an experience of enjoyment and escapism. Like any purchaser, you have a right to be critical and sparing with your investment. If you are unsatisfied after a fair test of their product, you should return it to the shelf and pick up something else. Years ago I abandoned James Joyce’s Ulysses and John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. This is not to say they are not brilliant books – I simply wasn’t getting out of them what the authors put into them (I assume I was too young). And at 264,965 and 169,481 words respectively it was the right decision. I probably read five or six ‘normal-size’ books in exchange. I urge you to be a more critical and sparing reader too.

Let’s be quitters together.

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9 comments

  1. I had to read Heart of Darkness last year as part of my uni syllabus – everyone kept having these discussions about how brilliant and moving it was but I just didn’t get it. I’m glad someone else has the same opinion and it’s not just me being dense! I’m usually a giver-upper – if the first couple of chapters don’t hold my attention I don’t carry on reading – but I suppose that might make me miss out on some very good reads. Great post 🙂

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