My mama always told me to finish my book. “If it isn’t disgusting or offensive or pornographic,” she’d say, “finish it. There’s a reason you picked that book up. You can learn something from it.”
For a long time I thought that was really good advice–sometimes a book just takes work, and I don’t feel like working at it…but that doesn’t [always] mean it’s not worth the struggle. But recently I tried to push through a book that’s considered a modern classic–I’ve circled around reading it for a long time, and finally plunged. And then I got about halfway through and, finally, had to give up. The characters were flat and closed and just ugly in nature.
I thought to myself, “Why am I spending time with these people?” I would not spend time in real life with people so bitter and ungiving. With a twinge of guilt (and a rush of release) I put the book on the ‘I’m finished with it’ pile.
And, as if in glorious vindication by the universe, later that day a thoughtful blogger posted Kurt Vonnegut’s eight basics of creative writing, which appeared in the preface to his short story collection, Bagombo Snuffbox. Vonnegut’s first two rules are…
…Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
…Give the reader at least one character that he or she can root for.
My abandoned book offered neither. As I put the book on the shelf with the other volumes awaiting a trip to Half Price Books, I thought, “Well, there’s three hours of my life I’ll never get back.”
I couldn’t think of one character I was curious about or hoped good things for. I sent mental thanks to my blogger friend and to Mr. Vonnegut for such clear articulation of good reasons to put a book away.
Then I thought that felt a little negative, so I went looking for reasons to embrace books.
I found a website called Good Reading Guide (www.goodreadingguide.com/about) that lists their method for reviewing books. It asks questions like, What does the book aim to do? Does it accomplish its goal? Is the book ‘recommendable’ (love that word) for the group intended to read it? Does the style suit the content, and are there elements of which readers should be mindful?
But the question I love, the question I think might be the defining question of whether a book is a ‘keep-on-with-it’ or a ‘never-mind; done’ read, is this one:
“Is It compatible with human dignity?”
I’m adopting that criterion. Any subject matter–talking bunnies, human cyborgs, life in unbearable slavery–can bolster human dignity. And any subject matter can flatten that dignity, too.
And, of course, each reader interprets that. I guess it would be fair to say, with our inclinations filtered through our experiences, that no one person ever reads the same book someone else reads. So my discarded modern classic might well be your intriguing read.
I got to thinking about books that meet the ‘don’t waste a stranger’s time,’ ‘offer one rootable character‘, and ‘be compatible with human dignity‘ rules. And I realized there are a lot of books that are lovely old friends; periodically I bring them down off the shelf and re-read. Maybe they call back the wonder of the time in which I first encountered them. Maybe they have humor and wisdom that just perfectly bolster my beliefs. Maybe they recall people with whom I shared their joyousness. I don’t know why they are perpetual re-reads for me, but I am always aware of their possibility. I call them my Re-Books. They’re the books to which I return, the ones I re-read over and over, the ones that speak words to me at the exact times in my life I need to hear the message.
Here are my top Re-Books. What are yours?
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
Every five years or so, I read through the whole series again. Timeless heroism; I always feel for Sam, that working class lug who makes it possible for Frodo to be the person Gandalf sees in him.
Pilgrim’s Inn, Eileen Goudge
I found this in a box of used books my parents brought home when I was a young teen. The story of a British family healing after WWII, it emphasizes that, sometimes, you have to give up the things you love. It’s a comforting read at times of letting go. It also speaks to the wonders that a little physical comfort can do for the human spirit.
Three Junes, by Julia Glass
I love spending time with Fenno…and it doesn’t hurt that he owns a bookstore! There can be many interpretations of the word ‘family’–this book creates a lovely one.
The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster
This is one of those children’s books that really, with its wonderful puns and wry humor, engages the adult. I read this aloud many, many times to my son. I read it to my sixth grade classes, who always mourned when the book finished. I read it to myself occasionally to remind myself that the Land of Words and the Land of Numbers can co-exist peacefully in one consciousness.
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
An ‘angels sing’ discovery when I was in middle school, Wrinkle presents an awkward, inept girl who finds her inner hero. I loved the image of family in this book, too–L’Engle portrays smart, savvy mothers who work and write and can really, really cook.
The Women’s Room, by Marilyn French
I fell so deeply into this book as an undergrad in the mid-1970’s that phrases still come back to me. I’ll be blissfully immersed in a baking extravaganza, for instance, and “happy, humming, domesticity” wafts softly into my consciousness. French articulated concepts I’d been struggling to name and hold on to. It’s great to read every ten years or so, a great way to check in on what’s changed and what has not.
Final Payments, by Mary Gordon
Gordon portrays exactly what a Catholic woman’s guilt and what her everyday martyrdom can feel like. And I carry the picture of waxy, shiny holly in a lovely silver bowl as an image of classy Christmas cheer.
A Patchwork Planet, Anne Tyler,
The best book about gradually growing up and embracing one’s true self that I have ever read.
The Persian Pickle Club, by Sandra Dallas
Now here’s a book that takes the bonds of female friendship to a zenith. The moral question at its core is just great fun to struggle, too. I wonder who you’ll think did it!
Yesterday, I came home to discover a package in my mail (there’s nothing better than that, is there?), and opened it to find Luanne Castle’s Doll God. Oh, the poems are beautiful. My reactions are part memory, part metaphoric…Luanne evokes time and feeling in her lovely verses. I almost wish I was still teaching English, so I could introduce my students to Luanne’s work.If you haven’t met Luanne, you can find her here at her blog: