Confessional Classic: What Makes Me Put A Book Down
We’re reaching back into the archives this week, reposting some of our favorite articles from the year. We’ll be back next week with a new year and new work. In the meantime, though, I hope you enjoy this post about what makes me stop reading a book. Happy New Year to you!
What Makes Me Put A Book Down
As I thought about our topic this week (3 things that make me throw a book across the room), I realized there’s only one thing that makes me do this.
The only times I’ve ever actually thrown a book across the room, I was so into a character and story that an unexpected event upset me to the extent I lashed out at the author by throwing the thing they’d created–and made me love.
Which, when you think about it, is actually a good thing. Compelling characters I care about? Yes, please. Story that keeps me on the edge of my seat? Awesome.
So, for me, throwing a book across the room is actually a compliment.
Now, there’s another thing I do with books. It’s the opposite of throwing.
I put books down. And more often than not, when I put a book down, it stays down.
This is not a good thing.
What makes me put a book down? Aside from obvious bad writing, here are three reasons.
1. I’m bored.
Last year I read a book that rambled for thirty pages before it got to anything resembling a story. The writing was beautiful, but reading it was like wandering through a forest. By page twenty I was searching for breadcrumbs. By page thirty, I was done with wondering. Perhaps you don’t consider thirty pages a big investment of time, but I do. I don’t think it’s asking a lot to have a clue where a story is headed after investing thirty pages worth of my time. I’m all for beautiful prose, and I love literary fiction as much as I do commercial. I’m an equal-opportunity reader. But if I’m bored by what’s happening (or rather not happening) in a story, odds are I’m going to put the book down.
2. I don’t believe it.
There’s an unspoken contract between authors and readers that goes something like this: the reader pays (in money, time and emotion) for the author to take him on a trip through the imagination. The deal hinges on that trip being real to the reader. I don’t mean real as in literal/factual/nonfiction. By real, I mean the reader buys into the story. Accepts it as real in his imagination. This has everything to do with verisimilitude. If an author creates a real character and puts her in a vivid setting and makes her leap off the page, the reader will follow that character everywhere she goes, regardless of how outlandish the premise of the story is. Zombies on the moon? Sure, if the author makes it real to the reader.
But when a character makes choices outside of who the author has established her to be, or when a setting morphs to cardboard cutouts or the walk-on characters show up from central casting, the book takes an unbelievable turn. The zombie on the moon turns out to be Frank the Plumber in a bad Halloween hand-me-down.
And I put the book down.
3. I just don’t care.
This one’s a toughy. At its essence is character. An author can craft the most amazing plot and create an amazing setting, but if I don’t care about the lead character , then it doesn’t matter to me what happens with the story. And that’s not good. The character can be a bad guy. Bad guys are totally fun to read as long as they’re compelling and real. But if the lead’s just a cardboard cutout or someone without anything redeeming about them, well, I don’t want to read it. And down goes the book.
This all sounds really harsh I suppose. But really, is it asking too much?
A book worth the investment of my money, time and emotion should be real and compelling and grab me by the heart. That kind of book may get thrown across the room, but it certainly won’t be put down.