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Life’s Too Short to Read Poorly Written Books

October 26, 2014

NOTE: Yes, I’ve been away from blogging for awhile! But now I’m back – and with a brand new series: “Life’s Too Short”. Posts will be less frequent than in the past (i.e., I won’t be maintaining a regular weekly schedule) and the focus will be on insights and epiphanies (‘ah ha’ moments) I’ve experienced since I’ve reached ‘the other side of 55’. This post is the first in the series.

Little CottontailI have always been an avid reader. My earliest memories of books and reading were ‘Little Golden Books’ with titles like Little Cottontail, Bambi, and Snow White. I also had a favourite book about an accident-prone cocker spaniel named Amber, and one with three animal-themed stories in it (featuring Buffin Bear, Squiffy the Squirrel, and Roly and Poly the racoon twins). In the early 60s I read every Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mystery I could get my hands on. When I was eleven or twelve, a friend of my mother’s gave her several dozen ‘medical romance’ paperbacks, but since mom didn’t read that sort of thing, my sister and I took the boxes downstairs and read (and re-read) every single one of them (NOTE: they were very chaste stories – nothing like the widely varied [and sometimes rather explicit] romance novels published today).

Old Oakville LibraryOne of my clearest memories is of going on a Grade 8 school field trip (on Wednesday, May 17, 1966, according to my old school newsletter) to the public library and getting my first library card. That was a truly momentous occasion. I was officially a member of the ‘adult’ library, with access to more books than I could ever read. (A year later, the original town library was closed and a brand new one – several blocks further west, but still within walking distance of my house – was built to celebrate Canada’s Centennial; it was much larger and brighter, and held hundreds more books. I spent a LOT of time there.)

In the summer of 1968, I got my first (non-babysitting) job at a variety store in the north end of town. When things were quiet (which was most of the time), I’d pick a paperback off the shelf and start reading. When my shift was over, I’d make a note of the page where I’d left off, return the book to the shelf, and go home. I don’t recall any of those books EVER being sold, so I managed to finish every single one I started. That fall, I got a job at another variety-type store (closer to home), where I continued to while away the hours reading (I ‘worked’ after school most days – when there was sporadic traffic in and out of the store, as well as the closing shift every Friday and on alternate Saturdays, when it was rare to have more than half a dozen customers between 7 p.m. and 11:00 p.m.). Basically, I was getting paid $1.25 an hour to read. I loved it!

Airport NovelI recall slugging my way through massive tomes like Hotel and Airport by Arthur Hailey, Tai Pan (and later Shogun and Nobel House) by James Clavell, andValley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann; gothic romances from authors like Mary Stewart and Phyllis Whitney; historic romances by Catherine Cookson and Georgette Heyer; family sagas like Penmarric by Susan Howatch; and dozens and dozens of ‘contemporary romances’ published by Harlequin (at the time they primarily reprinted and distributed medical romances from Mills and Boon in England; they were priced at 25 cents each). NOTE: as I was writing this, I realized that the majority of ‘popular fiction’ sold in Canada during the 60s and 70s was written by British authors – fascinating.

By the time I was finished with school and holding down a full time job, reading had become my favourite form of ‘recreation’ (at one point I actually declared that I was going to work my way from A to Z in the fiction section of the library, choosing books that appealed to me based on the ‘blurb’ on the back/inside cover – be they mystery, suspense, romance, or sweeping family saga; I think I got to the Es before that idea fizzled out).

The Flame And The FlowerIn 1972 I recall the ‘buzz’ around the publication of a scandalous ‘bodice ripper’ called The Flame and the Flower by Katherine Woodiwiss (now considered THE book that launched the current multi-billion dollar romance industry), and the ‘immoral’ pro-feminist novel, Fear of Flying by Erica Jong. I read them both (and many others of their ilk, all equally ‘shocking’ at the time, but enlightening in oh, so many ways). Some time in the early 1980s, I discovered a ‘western romance’ series (The Calder Series) by a former Harlequin author, Janet Dailey (the very first – and for a long time, ONLY – American author to write for Harlequin; her Americana series for them featured a story set in each of the 50 states of the U.S.A.). I continued to read her books, enjoying her style so much that I decided to ‘someday’ write romance novels for a living, too (a goal I’m actively pursuing now that I’m retired!)

So Many BooksIn the past 50+ years, I’ve read hundreds of books by dozens of authors in a wide variety of genres. Sometimes I select them based on recommendations from friends; at other times I simply browse the shelves of my local bookstore or library and pick up books that ‘sound like something I’d like’.  I’m fond of trolling garage sales, used bookstores, and second-hand shops for new authors (I LOVE a bargain – our local animal shelter occasionally sells paperbacks in their ‘gently used’ store for 10 cents each!) At one point (not that long ago), I had over 350 books in my private ‘library’. I have since purged those I know I won’t read again (setting them aside for the neighbourhood ‘Garage Sale for the Cure’ or ‘blue boxing’ those that are too worn to pass on); any that I know I will revisit have been moved to a bookcase downstairs (leaving two bookcases in the spare bedroom jammed with novels just waiting to be cracked open and enjoyed).

The big difference between my reading habits of years ago (i.e., up to about 2010) and now, however, is that in the past I would always – ALWAYS – finish a book I started, no matter how tough the going got (i.e., poorly constructed plots, lame dialogue, or unbelievable circumstances got a mild expletive of annoyance and a shrug as I turned the page and kept slogging through).  Now, when I lose patience with a book because the heroine isn’t sympathetic, the hero is a jerk, things that are supposed to be funny are actually just tasteless or crude, the author worked a weak romance into a book about how to train dogs, put out forest fires, run a wedding business or refurbish an inn, or there’s a subplot about a giraffe running amok in a major metropolitan city but only two people ever actually see it, I simply put it down (or toss it across the room while muttering, ‘How the h*** does that kind of crap get published?’), and pull something else off the shelf.

NOTE: I suspect a significant part of my recent discontent with poorly written books is the result of having spent the better part of the last four years studying and learning the craft of writing. It seems that the more I know about the techniques of writing a ‘bestseller’, the quicker I identify (and become annoyed with) problems related to plot and structure, characterization, dialogue, setting, narrative, etc. Where ‘before’ I knew there was something ‘not quite right’ with a story, now I can pinpoint the issues specifically and I can’t move past them. I suppose this is one of the ‘downsides’ of becoming a ‘skilled’ writer – you see the flaws you used to be able to ignore.

I was raised to ‘finish what you start’ and for most of my life I’ve followed this ‘rule’ without questioning it. But I’ve come to realize in the last few years that there are hundreds of thousands of ‘good’ books out there that I haven’t yet read – and life’s just far too short to waste my time reading poorly written ones.

My Perfect Library

My idea of a nearly-perfect personal library.

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19 Comments
  1. January 19, 2015 10:24 pm

    Many years ago I stopped finishing books I didn’t enjoy. It is the author’s job to pull the reader in and keep him or her engaged. Diana Gabaldon kept me engaged through eight long books in her Outlander series.

  2. November 27, 2014 7:27 am

    It seems that so many new books are page turners. Each chapter is no more than four pages. Although I do appreciate the read, with my busy schedule. it makes me wonder what is being left out, what I’m falling for when the older reads had chapter lengths of 10-20 pages. What is being left out is description and more complex character development. So much is artifice moving the plot along with twists and turns…but, really who are the characters? You were quite fortunate to be able to read while earning $1.25 an hour.

    • November 27, 2014 8:34 am

      As an aspiring author, I’m ‘leery’ of the ‘how to’ books that say ‘keep them turning the pages; leave out all that description/setting stuff and deep characterization; no one cares – they just want ACTION’. Well, I think all those things are important to story telling, and I’m clearly not alone! I sure wish I could get paid to read these days!

  3. October 30, 2014 11:08 pm

    I totally agree – life is too short to read a crappy book!

  4. October 28, 2014 9:14 pm

    I love reading, have since childhood like you, but have also gotten discouraged with books lately that just won’t keep my interest. Now I understand why…I thought there was something wrong with me when I couldn’t finish a book. Now I know it isn’t necessarily me, it’s the book. Thanks. 🙂

    • October 28, 2014 9:42 pm

      It’s a blessing and a curse to finally realize that some books just aren’t as good as they should be.

  5. October 27, 2014 10:45 am

    Margo

    I’ve been saying that for years. I give a book 50 pages to hook me, maybe 100 if it’s a long novel and I like long novels. I’m harder on non-fiction because there is so much badly written non-fiction. How some of it even gets published it beyond me. Have a good one.

    Oh, PS – I have reduced my hard copy library to 1/2 of one bookshelf. Kindle rocks. My 65 year old eyes resent the small, poor contrast print that paper publishers subject us to.

    • October 27, 2014 12:53 pm

      I still can’t quite get used to reading on an electronic device. I like the feel of a book in my hands. However, I suspect some day they’ll stop printing books and we’ll be forced to use electronic readers.

  6. October 27, 2014 9:35 am

    Margo, I LOVED this post! We’re kindred spirits I see. I’ve always loved reading and read the same things as you as a youngster and young adult. And I too made the vow to peruse the books in the library from A to Z. (You got farther along than I did though!) I hear you when you say how did this ever get published?! Yep, I used to finish a book no matter how much it slogged along and bored or annoyed me. But not any more! I now slam that poorly written book shut for good too and go on my merry way to better writing and reading. Maybe it’s finally reaching an age of wisdom? 😉

    • October 27, 2014 10:05 am

      Thanks! I ‘wised up’ a few years back when I realized I was AVOIDING reading because the book I’d chosen was so lame I didn’t want to pick it up again. Honestly, the first couple of times I put aside an unfinished book, I felt guilty (but, seriously, WHO was watching?!?!?!). Then I realized … life’s too short to read bad books (I still feel a tiny bit of guilt over the money I’ve spent on poorly written books but I ‘offset’ that by considering the time I might have wasted trying to finish them – and I figure its a win-win)

      • October 28, 2014 10:03 am

        You’re so right! And I feel the same about money wasted over bad books too, that’s why I make regular trips to the library now.

  7. Melody DeBlois permalink
    October 26, 2014 9:39 pm

    I agree, life is too short to struggle through a badly written book. Last night I finished reading Jane Eyre. It would never be picked up by today’s market. They’d say it has too much description, too much melodrama, too preachy, too many complex characters, which is a shame. To read Jane Eyre is to experience a classic, a book that once read will never be forgotten. Can we say the same about many of the books published today? I wonder…

    • October 27, 2014 8:58 am

      I don’t think there are too many books today that will ‘stand the test of time’ – future generations will likely still be reading Jane Eyre but I doubt they’ll give Stephanie Plum a second glance. I suspect some of it has to do with ‘mass marketing’ and changing reading habits (too many people want a ‘quick read’) but some of it has to do with our ‘acceptance’ of below-par writing. If readers (REAL readers) just stopped buying bad books (or could return them) maybe things would improve. That being said, there are still a lot of great writers out there penning wonderful books that can keep us going for quite some time.

  8. October 26, 2014 1:43 pm

    Reading. What heaven. I don’t read as much as I’d like to although I am retired. That last picture reminds me a lot of my house. Every nook and cranny hold shelves of books. I need to give up sleep or SOMEthing to catch up on my reading.

    Like you I would always finish a book that didn’t appeal to me but do still try to find the page the magic starts. I’m reading one now I’m thinking of giving the toss. It’s a Scotia Giller Price longlist published in 2013. These are the sort of books that make me wonder.

    Sigh.

    • October 26, 2014 2:14 pm

      I find ‘award winning literary books’ oftentimes fall into the same category as ‘award winning films’ – critics love them but most of us ‘regular folks’ just don’t get it! I often look at my bookshelves and wonder if I’ll EVER get through them all.

      • October 26, 2014 6:41 pm

        I can’t imagine making it through all mine. I volunteer at a used bookstore each week. Bring home books all the time….sigh… Know what I mean?

      • October 26, 2014 6:54 pm

        The women who work in the ‘gently used’ store at the Humane Society keep asking me to volunteer there; the main reason I don’t is that I’d bring home half the stuff that people drop off (especially the books!) I’m trying really hard NOT to buy any more until I’ve worked my way through at least half my current ‘stash’.

      • October 27, 2014 5:37 pm

        Yup, we’re talking the same language but seem I tell little w.h.i.t.e lies each week. Sometimes, I’m good. Sometimes.
        o_O

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