Lately I’ve been thinking about bad books. Or not “bad” books, but “not-so-great” books. Books that, at the particular time of your life that you pick them up, don’t seem to have much to offer.
The question is: Do you push on? No matter what? Or do you put the thing down (or, perhaps, toss it across the room)? When? After a certain number of pages? Or just as soon as your boredom, frustration, and/or disgust grow too intense to any longer bear.
Depending on the length of the book (and, of course, my reasons for reading it), I tend to push on. I’m not sure whether it’s a love of dragging my eyes across pages or just foolishness and gullibility, but I’m somehow able to slog through a book even if it’s constantly threatening to put me to sleep – and yes, this even though I know there are more truly great books out there than I’ll ever get a chance to read. (This is no doubt partly due to the writer in me, who’s always interested in seeing how others tell their stories. After all, there’s such a thing as a badly-executed-but-good idea, and you can always learn something from studying failed attempts.)
The question becomes even more complicated when you consider the delicate task of introducing children (or reluctant “tweens” and adolescents) to reading. Pushing a kid (or even an adult, for that matter) to finish a book can certainly have disastrous consequences – they could, in the worst-case scenario, forever resent reading.
But some books, often the great ones, are hard. They challenge us, both intellectually and emotionally. And some of reading’s greatest rewards can only be reaped once we’ve waded or climbed or crawled through the toughest passages.
I remember being eight or nine and asking my dad some questions about World War II. He’d written dozens of books, including one about the war, so I thought of him as something of an authority. And he answered my questions. We had a good conversation. But being a book-lover and a humble, what he’d probably call “amateur,” historian (of World War II, at least), he then presented me with a spine-bowing stack of fat, dense texts – the best, he said, ever written on the subject.
Damage to my spine aside, there’s something positive to be said about my dad’s having given me that armload of tomes, despite the fact – or perhaps even because of the fact – that he knew there was no way I’d ever make it through as much as one of them (not at that age). He knew me well enough to do it. He knew that he couldn’t possibly damage my love for reading, but that that stack of books, sitting there on my dresser, would serve to constantly encourage me to push, to press on, to wade or climb or crawl a little further.
As I’ve said before on this blog, a good book is a good book is a good book. But it isn’t always the right book. It’s like pairing up people. There’s the girl you kind of hung out with in high school, who has, in the years since, become one of your best friends. Or the guy you took for a jerk who, seen in different situations, proves himself to be one of the more kind and caring individuals you know.
Be careful with your reading recommendations, especially when you’re recommending to kids. And next time you find yourself stopping midway through a page to sigh or roll your eyes or give your teeth a good hard grinding, consider whether it’s worth pushing on. Is there perhaps a reward at the end of this toughness? Are these the pains of being beneficially challenged? Or is this just bad writing about people and a subject that you don’t care to learn more about?
If you decide it’s the latter, by all means put the book down, but maybe don’t get rid of it. Stick it back up on the shelf or even toss it in a bin in the attic or the closet. But keep it around. Come back to it later on, in a month or a year or ten, when you’re more different from the person who first encountered the book than you ever would’ve believed you could be. You may find that the book has changed, too. That there are things in it you hadn’t previously seen. Valuable things that had been invisible, and even worthless, to the younger you.
. . .