“I’m an English teacher. I really should be more familiar with the classics. I’m such a fraud, having never read Tolstoy.”
Every fourth or fifth book on my bookshelves is one I haven’t read, one that I hope a visitor never spots and asks about. The stupid thing is, when I’m making a visit to a second hand bookshop, I’m much more likely to sell a book I read and loved than a book I haven’t finished yet. Because of that thread of possibility, that I might finish.
It took me years to get through Catch-22. I stuck with that one because every couple of chapters there was something that made me laugh, a little giggly moment of clarity where I saw why it was a modern classic. But I didn’t love it. If I had borrowed it from the library, I would have been saved by a due date, forced to return it eventually and pick something else. Because I had bought it, I felt like I had to finish. Like I wasn’t allowed to buy or read anything else until I had.
When the calendar flicked over to January 1, I began my New Year’s Resolution and 2015 reading challenge. I looked through my Christmas presents and bookshelves for Australian authors, and took Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot off my “what I’m currently reading” list on my website’s home page.
“I’ll come back to it,” I thought. “Next year.” The premise of the novel did and does still intrigue me, and the Prince had just started saying some interesting things, but it was slow reading and I was ready for something fresh.
So I was looking at my bookshelves, picking out the Australian authors and lining them up on a table. I had a Dymock’s catalogue open with the Australian authors on their 3 for 2 deal circled. I had a handwritten list of interesting-looking books I’d found on the pages of Australian literary agents. And my husband paused beside me to look.
“Are you going to read a Matthew Reilly book this year?” he asked.
“Maybe. Action’s not really my thing, but we’ll see.” I was deliberately non-committal. I’ve been known to fall asleep during action movies. It’s not the writing; it’s me.
He picked up the first two I had lined up: presents from a friend. Markus Zusak’s The Messenger and Tim Winton’s Eyrie.
“Would I like this? Tim Winton. Why’s that name familiar to me?”
“You probably read Cloudstreet in high school,” I told him.
“Oh yeah. I hated that book.” He put Eyrie back down.
In this short conversation, we acknowledged some of the unwritten rules of reading:
1. Readers tend to know their own taste, and that’s not an insult to writers.
2. Those who dislike something rarely go back for more.
The exception to rule #2 is a little like eating: those who dislike wasabi aren’t likely to go out of their way to find it. But those who dislike vegetables will try to find ways to mask the flavour or force them down, because they know that vegetables are good for them.
For some reason, I’ve internalised the idea that certain books are good for me. I was okay with saying no to Matthew Reilly, but when it had taken me a week to get to page 10 of Eyrie, I still felt like I should stick with it. I realised what was wrong when Jaclyn Moriarty’s The Cracks in the Kingdom appeared in my mailbox. I was longing to read that book. I love Moriarty. But I hadn’t finished Eyrie yet, or even made it a tenth of the way through…
I put the book down. Winton is a good writer. But he’s not to my taste.
Here’s why I’m writing this, and it’s something I want my students to know too:
It’s okay to put a book down.
You don’t have to like a bestseller. I wasn’t particularly enamoured of The Fault in Our Stars, and that’s okay.
Not everything “literary” is good for you. Give them a go every now and then, because there’s value in reading for the sake of language and exploration of the human condition, but when you find yourself wanting to bake a cake or learn to sew instead of reading, you’ve probably had enough for today.
Readers tend to know their own taste and that’s not an insult to writers or to readers. It’s better to honestly recommend a book that made you happy than pretend to like a book you think you “should” read.
Reading is good for you. Fiction helps us empathise. Reading improves our writing. Stories open minds and change them. Yes, even Harry Potter.
And don’t worry. According to this article, you weren’t the only one who didn’t finish The Goldfinch.