I finally, finally finished reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius today. It was really good, absolutely deserving of the plaudits it received, and by the end I really, really just wanted it to be over already. I kept checking how many pages I had left, closing the book so I could compare “distance before the bookmark” to “distance after the bookmark,” and in general feeling like reading it was much more of a chore than anything I really wanted to do.
I’m actually happy that I read it. Not in a “I’m glad I made it through that tortuous ordeal” sense, although there’s definitely a bit of that; as difficult life situations go, reading a book that you’re just not really feeling ranks very low. It really was good, and had a lot of interesting things to say about life in the nineties and the genuinely tragic situation that Dave Eggers found himself in. My life is better for having read it. But it was also clearly not the right book for this moment in my life, which made it painfully slow going. For someone who has been known to read three or four novels in a day, taking weeks to read a single normal-length book is a sign that there’s some deep mismatch between the two of us1.
I tend to be one of those people that like to finish novels I start, or at least ones where I get past the first ten pages or so. Part of it is because the majority of fiction I pick up I know is good; I’m basing my picks off of recommendations or reviews, and I’m a pretty easy-going reader in the first place, perfectly content to read a popcorn novel if it’s fun, so surely it gets better, right? Surely by the end I’ll be happy that I stuck it out. Honestly, though, most of it is just sheer cussedness. I have a habit of dropping projects once they get tough, but damn it I’m gonna finish this stupid novel even if it kills me. Figuratively.
I wrote a bit, ages ago, about how many of the novels I’ve tried to write during NaNoWriMo over the years end up discarded somewhere around the 4,000 word mark, when I realize that they’re less interesting (or harder to write) than what I’m willing to tolerate during the accelerated churn-out-as-much-as-you-can time period of November. My hard drive is littered with these “4K corpses2.” A few years ago I forced myself to finish one despite the overwhelming feeling that I should scrap it and write something else instead; the resulting novel is a hot mess, filled with boring anecdotes from my life (with various levels of fictional-ness slathered on top) until I hit the 50K mark and could put the damn thing away for the year. In that case, the pride of finishing is basically all about making it through the tortuous ordeal, and nothing to do with the “pleasure” of writing. It’s garbage and I know it.
But other people’s books are different, thankfully. If I still bought novels with any regularity, I’d just set it aside for some other time, but nowadays I try to get most of my reading material from the library, and keeping a list of “stuff I tried but couldn’t get into” would extend my already-near-infinite backlog that much further. So I force myself to eat my vegetables3 sometimes, and for the most part it works out for the best. Even though I feel the pain of having that backlog pushed back further and further, as days that could have contained me reading a book or two now see me barely making it a tenth of the way through some difficult work.
Fortunately I already have some delicious popcorn reading lined up next, ready to be torn through at maximum speed. At least until I hit the next weird roadblock and once again slow down to a crawl…
(Seriously, though, if you haven’t read it, you should read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It’s good!)
- Or it’s dense non-fiction. I read most non-fiction way, way slower than fiction, for a variety of reasons. I’m only mildly ashamed to admit that it’s part of why I don’t read very much of it. Technically Heartbreaking is (mostly) non-fiction, but it reads like a novel, so it feels more fiction-y to me than anything else.
- Not literally, of course, and not even really figuratively; they’re all tucked away in a particular place. But that’s not as impressive sounding, is it?
- Yeah, I know it’s meat in the song, but c’mon: I’ve never had trouble eating meat.