Monday, February 28, 2011

What to Read? Part 1: The Literary Love Affair

So how to decide what to read next?  I always get excited about new releases, but when faced with the multitude of captivating covers and compelling blurbs – all at hardcover prices – I find myself paralyzed.  How to choose?  Frustrated, I browse a while, and my thoughts turn to all the unread books on my shelves, many of them classics I have the best intentions of reading and don’t, or the books my sister/mother/friend handed me with a overly enthusiastic and dubious testimony of their greatness.  Then there is the stack of reading I checked out from the slim pickin’s at my small town library, but I take them for granted because they are somewhat pass√©, or because they were free, or because I can always renew them if I don’t get around to them.
            I would argue that the reason most people don’t read (or don’t read more) is because the choices are too many, not too few.  When a book requires a commitment of time (and quiet space), we become stingy.  We don’t want to waste one minute on a book that tortures rather than titillates, erodes us rather than edifies, bores us rather than brightens us. 
We seem to forget that we can always put a book down if it displeases us, but it’s sort of like a bad first date or a disappointing relationship – we've invested in this book.  We asked around about it, reading reviews and taking tips from friends.  We spent a good while in bookstores looking at covers to see which were the hottest.  We read back cover blurbs like so much small talk…and then it happened.  We thought we found “the one”.  We “took it out”, forking over our money so we could get to know this book better.  When we got a chapter or two into the date, we began to suspect we made a mistake.  We kept reading, hoping the date would get better, but it didn’t. 
Usually, when the reading takes a bad turn early on, we can expect the goodnight kiss at the end (i.e. the book’s payoff) to either be (1) a polite handshake (a nice but boring ending), (2) an awkward head turn that gives you cheek contact instead of lip contact (the poorly executed and disappointing ending), or (3) a door slam right in your face (the ending that isn’t really an ending, leaving you slack jawed and thinking “Wha…Huh?”).  My advice? Put the book down and call it an early night rather than persist in trying to salvage it.
            Sometimes you stumble across the “one-night stand” read.  These are often cheap dates in paperback form wearing tacky covers.  They are wildly popular and get around a lot.  It’s not going to be a long-term love affair.  You don’t have to make a lot of effort on the date, and you know what to expect (like so much delicious formula romance or mystery).  You’ll sail quickly through pleasantries and pretty soon, you’re invited up for that drink, where you get down to the business of tearing through pages and reading away until you reach the climax (which is always satisfying in its tawdry way).  When you are done, you can go about your business without a second thought – no need to stay with it all night agonizing about what it all means.  No need to lounge around with it, reading its "sweet nothings" and savoring its nuances.  Instead you do the “walk of shame”, ditching the book at the bottom of a drawer or shoving it up on the top shelf of your closet (deep into the closet).  You would die if your uppity literary friends know you spent the night with it.  You’d never live it down.  Yet you think about it on occasion, sometimes bothering to reread the juicy bits, like a spontaneous booty, er, I should say, “booky” call.
            Although I like the occasional one-nighter read, I generally seek books with which I can have a long-term relationship.  You know what I mean - the kind you'd recommend to your mother.  I want a book I think about when it’s not in my hot little hands.  I want to be so besotted that I ignore my family and shirk minor responsibilities to sneak off and read it. And once we are finished and ready to move on, I want to wallow in its inspiration for at least a couple of weeks, maybe a month.  I want to talk about it to everyone I know, until they are sick of hearing me moon over it.  I want to cherish little mementos of our time together – eating a certain food the book made me crave, going to a place the characters frequented, listening to a song that was mentioned within.  It’s the book you never really get over. You may reunite with it from time to time.  Perhaps you bump into it while dusting your your bookcase, and before you know it, you are reading it again.  Soon, however, you will think of how there are plenty of other books in the shelves, and leave it behind for a newer release.  Yet, when you read other books, you discover they pale in comparison to your favorite, and you wish they could all be like the “one that got away”.  Our favored books leave permanent marks on us – they change our lives.
            Stay tuned for my next post, where I submit my process for finding these literary love affairs.

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