I’m a reader by nature, and have always counted myself fortunate to grow up in a home surrounded by thousands of books. My parents are both readers as well, and my mother in particular is a voracious consumer. Besides the handsomely bound classics lining the floor to ceiling shelves of the family room, I doubt there’s any genre unrepresented in our household, from biographies to bodice-rippers to sci-fi to comics. Books are stacked haphazardly on every spare surface, and the unused bedroom is a repository of shopping bags filled with books to be resold or donated to the library.
I filled a spare suitcase with most of the approximately thirty books I received as gifts for Christmas when I returned to the UK, happily paying an additional hundred dollars to lug them back to my apartment. Even then, one of the first things I did this weekend, my first back, is walk to a used bookstore in Soho to stockpile more treasure, and then spent the rest of the day in bed happily working my way through two of my new novels. In short, there are few things in the world I would rather do than read, and I am a proud book junkie.
Which is why it’s worse than a disappointment, more of a slap in the face, to have selected a book, dedicated your time to it, only to discover halfway through that your book is complete rubbish. It’s an insult to booklovers and as we all know, there is a lot of drivel out there. When I open a book, I am placing myself in the hands of that author (and hopefully that editor), trusting them to provide me with the escapism, amusement, and enlightenment I’ve paid for. I enter into this relationship respectfully; I cradle the book, I give it my love, and I expect to be treated well in return. And when a book lets me down, my reaction is outraged. It’s like shaving your legs and getting excited about a Friday night first date, only to have your dinner partner turn out to be a bore and a Holocaust denier. You’re pissed off to have your time wasted on a product that was not as advertised.
I’m not talking about when a book simply isn’t to your taste, but you recognize that it’s competently written. I mean when a book is so sloppy or dull that you’re indignant trees died to print it. I was having a conversation with my mother about this topic, after I flung a chick-lit book across the room in disgust after 60 pages when I was home on vacation. It was garbage, I explained, and I rode out the simplistic sentence construction and illogical leaps in narration for as long as I could, until I decided the book would be best off smacking into the back of my bedroom door. I didn’t even want to donate it to the library and risk subjecting someone else to it. It could only be recycled in the hopes that it would emerge from the paper plant newly born as toilet roll.
She was interested that I was this certain after 60 pages, as she had just undergone her own book-flinging experience. Plodding through an international “thriller” with a tiresome cast of interchangeable characters, she realized that not only could she not keep them straight, she simply didn’t give a shit about any of them. The author totally failed to engage her emotionally or intellectually. So how far through did she get, I wanted to know. The answer? Up to page 436.
436! I said. But you were almost finished! What made you stop at that point? So she showed me, and I consider this to be a gorgeous, even genius summation of this phenomenon, that final straw that sends a book deservedly hurling through space in the direction of the trashcan. On page 436, our hero was attempting to commandeer a Soviet-era military helicopter. Presumably the baddies are hot on their tail and the situation is desperate. What will they do? How are they going to get this thing off the ground in time? Well, there are instructions in the helicopter for use (go with it), and then there was this sentence:
“Luckily, he could read Russian.”
Seriously, I asked? This hasn’t come up before in the book? Nope, she answer. Luckily for everyone, it turned out he could read Russian. As you do. And this is a perfect example of the kind of lazy bullshit that passes for writing sometimes. It’s as ludicrous as, “Fortunately for Mindy, unconscious on the jogging path, Dave had enjoyed a brief career as a world-renowned heart surgeon.” Well, isn’t that convenient.
Soon after this conversation, a very close friend proudly gave me a weighty hard-back copy of the new Patricia Cornwell book, Scarpetta. We are big book-exchangers and while he had not read it, it was a thriller by a respected writer with a strong female protagonist, and he really thought it would be up my alley. I gave up on Patricia Cornwell a few books in the series ago, but was enthused to try her again and would welcome a return to form. I entered without much trepidation, encouraged by the mental institution plotline and promises of an impossible-to-foresee twist.
Ten pages in or so, Scarpetta is speaking to her husband Benton over the phone from the morgue (actually, he has an earpiece in, because he is very high-tech like that). And as they talk, it is noted: “Her voice moved at the speed of sound.”
I blinked a few times and thought it through. I read it aloud, at the speed of sound. Then I carefully slid a bookmark in and placed it on the shelf, to be returned to when I am ready.