Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Why I throw books across the room.

I would never burn a book, but I will throw one across the room.

Having spent the first two decades of adulthood reading vast numbers of scientific papers and manuscripts, I have a huge fiction deficit.  During those years I scarcely read fiction at all.  Who had time for that?

But somewhere in my congested head I always knew that you should read fiction, plenty of it.  I understood this while bustling back and forth between the Ramsay Wright Zoological Laboratories and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.  A few times I saw Robertson Davies standing outside Massey College at the corner of Hoskins Ave and Devonshire Place waiting for a cab and I would think, He looks like an interesting old kook.  I should probably read his books.  On the third floor of Ramsay Wright there was a small lab room, really just a prep room between two real lab rooms, with a nameplate on the door, “Prof.  C.E. Atwood.”  C.E. Atwood was a professor emeritus, and I was pretty sure he was the father of Margaret Atwood.  I never met or saw him, but I thought that putting his name on a prep room door instead of a real lab door was kind of disrespectful, and that I should probably read his daughter’s books, or at least skim one.

I have a hard time reading.  I have strabismus, still, after three corrective surgeries (ages 8, 10, 20).  I’m not the wall-eyed confusion you might have met during earlier pre- and inter-op spans, but there’s enough L-R disparity that my eyesight buggers up my ability to look through binoculars or follow a line of text across a page.  In high school, small-print Hardy and Dickens were hell, and I should have been awarded high marks for even finishing those books.  My wife was an English major and at some point I greedily hoarded all her old books when she was about to discard them before a move because it’s so costly to move books.  I shouldn’t have bothered. I doubt I will ever read them.  They contain too many words without enough spaces in between.  But here they are at arm’s length, foxing away.

I no longer need regularly read grim multi-authored papers on the phylogeography of skinks or the evolution and function of the vomeronasal organ.  As much as possible I read single-authored fiction, and am always looking for a writer who suits my needs and limitations.

My main requirement:  Keep it moving.

Please don’t show what a fabulous writer you are by describing something commonplace in excruciatingly clever detail. 

Last night I was reading a novel in which the author spent the equivalent of four pretty pages describing the people at a party—their clothes, their mannerisms, snippets of conversation—meant to illustrate that they were hip, shallow people.  I got it after about four lines, and had to start skimming, searching for something my eyeballs and interest could glom onto.

Perhaps being boring was his way of illustrating how boring the party was, in which case, Success!
I would have thrown the book across the room except that I had downloaded it onto my iPad.

Even if I could afford to throw my iPad across the room, the inconvenience in replacing its data would have been much worse than what Elvis went through when he shot TVs.

I learned book throwing from my mother, who would read several novels a week.  Her trigger for throwing a book across the room was when an author described a character having a dream.

Thank god for trade paperbacks.  You can throw them blindly. Hardcovers can mar the drywall or crack a fish tank, so don’t throw them.   Thump them broadside down on the carpet in disgust, then carefully kick them at the baseboard.

But here’s the thing.  I always feel ashamed for losing my temper at a book. I know not everyone wants to write in strabismus-friendly snippets.  Inevitably I pick up the thrown book and repair any damage I have caused to it and put it back on the shelf lying sideways across the other books.  If I have read at least a third of the way through prior to the throwing, I will at a later date, somewhat embarrassed, pick it up, finish reading it, and wedge it in upright among the others with its title and author clearly visible.

I was recently given a Kindle Paperwhite, which is nicer to read from than an iPad but you can’t throw it either, a flaw second only to the fact that it’s too easy to mistake for a coaster.

I don’t like e-readers and will never download an unknown author again. Unless I know I can tolerate an author’s style, I want a book I can throw across the room.

I love fiction.  Please keep it moving.


Tim said...

I recall you mentioning some time ago that you were working on something yourself, possibly for publishing in an eformat. Whatever became of that idea?

Susannah Anderson said...

I like to read mysteries on lazy evenings. So I would have read your four pretty pages very carefully, expecting to find some important detail there. If I later realize that it was all just words, I feel cheated and very annoyed.

Another author for my black list.

And you've just convinced me not to get a Kindle.

Hugh said...

Tim, I went back and forth on that--there are so many contradictory opinions, and so far e-publishing seems a moving target (which it may always be). So I didn't do anything with it yet. Instead, I started writing something else, which is one reason I don't blog much anymore.


I've never understood long passages that lead nowhere. They can't be any more fun to write than they are to read.

Re Kindle: I haven't made up my mind yet. It's nice to have a super compact portable library (if you want to spend the money to fill it), but for ease of use, nothing beats a real book.

biobabbler said...

I'm reading Dashiell Hammett right now (pretty speedy) but what really freaked me out is that it's a library book my husband checked out for me (all DH novels, 5 of 'em, in 1 tome, under 1000 pp total) is the BEAUTY of the actual book. The quality. It's "The Library of America" publishing group/project and the paper is LOVELY, almost onion skin, you get a RIBBON w/which to keep your place, the font is not tiny, etc. DELICIOUS. Need to look into buying these series.

Just a wow-books-can-be-lovely 2 cents. =) Good luck in your quest.

Hugh said...

bb: That's an interesting solution, use prayer book paper and ribbon. Otherwise reading a book so thick and engrossing could eventually crush you, and you would never notice, like a frog slowly being boiled alive.

(I'm pretty sure the frog eventually notices.)

Anonymous said...

"... describing something commonplace in excruciatingly clever detail."

Lawdy - stay the hell away from Henry James, then.