What to Read and Why: Tips for Discerning Readers (Part V)

This post is the fifth and final part in a series aimed at helping readers to more effectively identify books they will enjoy—that is, to invest their reading time wisely, and to reap all of the dividends accruing therefrom.

A couple of weeks ago my dad returned from a vacation complaining about the book he’d picked up at a grocery store to read along the way.

“It’s really not very good,” he said. “It took me a long time to make it through even the first few pages.”

I’m withholding the title so as not to pass judgment on a book I haven’t read, but based on what he told me, it sounded like a bad Metamorphosis knockoff. I nodded sympathetically—certainly I’ve started books before that made me regret my choice—but I wouldn’t have given it a second thought had he not followed up by saying, “I’m really not looking forward to finishing it.”

Wait. What?

“I’m really not looking forward to finishing it,” he repeated, clearly unsure why I was asking.

“So you don’t like it at all but you’re still going to finish it?”

“Yeah, of course. Why wouldn’t I?”

“Because… you don’t like it.”

He went on to explain that there’s only ever been one book in his entire life that he started and couldn’t finish. (The Red Badge of Courage, for those of you keeping score at home. I don’t recall having any such problems with Stephen Crane.) For him, this was a point of pride, The Red Badge the single black mark on an otherwise spotless record.

For me, however, his pride seemed entirely misplaced. Reading should be fun. Certainly there’s a place for other kinds of reading, but I’m not sure that place is the book aisle of your local grocery store.

If you’re reading a book and you’re not getting anything out of it, then STOP. Stop reading. Put it down and walk away.

Lest ye compulsive book-finishers out there think this recommendation the work of someone who just doesn’t understand, know this: I was once like you. I, too, was once a compulsive book-finisher. I have labored under the weight of many a self-imposed sentence, and I appear before you today a changed man. And if I can do it, then so can you.

But you don’t have to take it from me. No less an authority than Teddy Roosevelt once proclaimed the same advice. “A book must be interesting to the particular reader at that particular time,” he said. “Personally, the books by which I have profited infinitely more than by any others have been those in which profit was a by-product of the pleasure; that is, I read them because I enjoyed them, because I liked reading them, and the profit came in as part of the enjoyment.”

Loosely translated: reading should be fun. Read what you like because you like it. Anything else would be rough reading. (Riding?)

We’ll call that the Roosevelt Doctrine.

An important corollary to the Roosevelt Doctrine: “The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbors say those needs should be. He must not hypocritically pretend to like what he does not like.”

Loosely translated: love what you love, and say that you do. Books should not be arranged marriages.

“Books are almost as individual as friends,” Teddy said. “There is no earthly use in laying down general laws about them. Some meet the needs of one person, and some of another; and each person should beware […] taking the shape of arrogant pity for the man who does not like the same kind of books.”

It’s sound advice all the way around. Don’t feel obligated to like particular books because of the prevailing literary zeitgeist. And for the love of God, don’t suffer through books you’re not getting anything out of.

[An aside to my Google-savvy students who will inevitably dig up this post sometime in the middle of next semester: you’ll note that I said “books you’re not getting anything out of.” That doesn’t mean you have to like them. That does mean you have to read them. This is one of those “other kinds of reading” I mentioned earlier.]

Reading is, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest goods known to mankind. It makes you smarter. It makes you more sympathetic. It even makes you sexier.

But these are the byproducts that Teddy was referring to. We don’t often read just to get smarter. Ever try to slog through a set of encyclopedias? I predict your motivation will run out before the articles do.

Instead, we read because we like it. Or at least we should. Consigning yourself to finish a book you don’t like just because you happened to start reading it is akin to believing you should never leave your hometown just because you happened to be born there. (Or even your home, I suppose, if you’re a strict textualist.)

If you’re still not convinced, though, then I hereby submit my strongest argument in favor of putting down the books you don’t like. Remember at the start of this series when I crunched the numbers about how many worthy titles there are out there just waiting to be read? For every minute you waste on a book you don’t like, that’s one more minute you’re not spending with another book you would.

You owe it to yourself to read books you enjoy. Sticking with books you don’t like is not only self-denying, it’s downright irresponsible.

My general policy is this: if I start reading your book, you get an hour to impress me. If I don’t like a book after an hour, I’m done. I’m moving on to something else. There’s too much good stuff out there, and not a minute to spare.

The first four posts in this series focused on helping you to find books you’ll like. This post exhorts you to find them. The cost of sticking with books you don’t like is not finding the ones you do.

Frankly, that’s too high a price. I won’t pay it, and you shouldn’t, either. If you’re pressed for reading time, then spend it wisely—whatever that means to you. To that end, I hope this series has been, if not helpful, then at least enjoyable.

Most importantly: happy reading.

Michael Noltemeyer is a third-year MFA candidate at the University of New Mexico. He is the Nonfiction Editor for Blue Mesa Review.