The Books We Don’t Read

This isn’t going to be another Hugo post. But I won’t say that the Hugo announcement didn’t get me thinking more a bit about this. This stuff had been on my mind for a while now. For one reason I recently read Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, a book some folks are claiming is the best/most ground-breaking novel they’ve read in recent years. A claim I don’t at all agree with. My reaction’s similar to this one. In a nutshell I thought it bland. It would have been better if it had had 50 – 100 pages cut from it. This would have kept the descriptions from miring the plot’s impetus. This is my usual complaint with most contemporary genre novels. Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris is 225 pages. Molly Gloss’s The Dazzle of Day is 256 pages. Personally I blame Iain M. Banks.

But… I read it, and that’s the thing.

The fact that I finish a book is a recommendation of that book. The fact that I’m compelled to critique it isn’t a reason not to read it. I might have issue with it, like I did with last month’s On Such A Full Sea or with Ancillary Justice now, but the critique doesn’t make the book not worth reading. Ancillary Justice is an entertaining Space Opera. I’ll blather more about it at the end of the month, as I will about Molly Gloss’s The Dazzle of Day (which I loved and think everyone should read, really).

The problem’s that the conversation’s going to be one-sided.

We’ll talk about the books we read. We’ll engage with them and pick them apart. This may be because we don’t like the book, or had issue with it. But we’re having a conversation with it. Read the book and let’s argue about it! What we can’t do is talk about books we don’t read. And for all sorts of reasons there are plenty of books I don’t read.

There’s the obvious time constraint for one, knowledge for another,  and a host of subjective reasons (I’m not the biggest fan of close reactive 1st person), but more importantly I’m not going to read works by authors I don’t respect or who I don’t think are particularly good writers. Nor am I really going to engage with many living writers whose politics are so much different than mine. So Ann Leckie’s on my radar because we’re both in that section of the genre ocean, but Larry Correia isn’t. I’ll dismiss Brad Torgerson as a bad writer, but by doing so I’m never going to engage with his work. And that silence there bothers me, because it’s willful on my part. It’s not that there’s no sound there. It’d that I’m choosing to reject it. That’s part of the problem.

Say there’s a disagreement between two people. One person you disagree with and reject outright as wrong. The other person you agree with, but wish spoke better, for whatever quality of better you want to apply. Now, when you ignore the person you disagree with because they’re wrong, but quibble with the person you do agree with, what purpose are you serving? Because what you might be doing is adding to the noise around the person you agree with without altering the message from the other side.

And those are some of the questions: Do you cheer louder for books you’re not enthusiastic about, simply to shout down the other side? Do you read books by authors you don’t like to prevent yourself from thinking there’s only silence on the other side? And then what about those hateful authors? Are you obligated to read them? Or is politicizing one’s reading time ultimately a waste of time? I don’t agree that’s true, but most people aren’t trying to read over a hundred books this year, and I’m not about to make any claims regarding how other people should spend their time.

I do my best to read widely. Not the easiest or cheapest thing to do outside the anglophone sphere when you’re a klutz and can’t seem to keep an e-reader from self-destructing, not to mention having a full-time job, writing my own stuff,  and pursuing a graduate degree. But I try. The question is should I try and read books I’m fairly confident I’m not going to like.

Anyway, that’s what’s on my mind.

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6 responses to “The Books We Don’t Read”

  1. marly youmans says :

    If you have the desire to discuss books you suspect that you might not like, why don’t you design a way of looking at them that doesn’t require the entirety of the book to be read? I’ve done a good bit of contest judging of late, which requires a lot of reading. And I’ve noticed what one might expect–that if a book does not work in the first fifty pages, it rarely redeems itself by the halfway mark or the end. Perhaps you could have a why-I-didn’t-go-on series, or some such. And the ones that encourage you to go on and finish, well, you could post about them separately, of course.

    • Justin says :

      Thanks for the suggestions! Honestly, I kind of fear that once I start complaining I won’t be able to stop. Although maybe at year’s end I could post a list of unfinished books. And sometimes what keeps me from finishing a book is not so much a criticism, but that I’m outside its target window.

  2. Bob Howe says :

    Thoughtful piece. My answer to your final question, for me, is no. There are many, many books by writers I admire personally, or whose work I admire, or whose work is getting noticed for its quality, that I’m just never going to get to. At this point in my life I will never lack for books by friends, books that are brilliant, even books I may not especially like, once I’ve read them, but which have something original to say. I can’t imagine wasting ten minutes of my time on hate reading, or on confirming that an author for whom I have no respect is a bad writer.

    I don’t feel like I owe anything to the larger conversation about books (nor am I convinced my input is necessary). Like you, between work and life and my own writing, I have precious little time to read, and I owe it to myself to use that time in a way that’s most likely to enlarge my thinking, my compassion, or both.

    • Justin says :

      Yeah. I’m inclined to agree with you, Bob. Life is too short and it’s not really interesting to find out you don’t like the things you expect you’re not going to like. Of course, if someone said, “No, you have to read this book by author you don’t like”, and that person was in general someone whose opinion I respected, then yeah, maybe I would check it out. That’s more or less how I ended up reading a space ork novel last month. But in that case I am asking someone else to do the sorting for me.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  3. asakiyume says :

    There was an article from the Guardian going round FB the other day about how we don’t really have time for all the things we *want* to do, let alone the things that we don’t want but sort of feel like we ought to do (I’m talking about non-mandatory things). That definitely holds for reading. I find there are any number of things I’m very interested–genuinely interested–in hearing about, that *still* I may not get around to reading, myself. I am super glad for conversation about them because it gives me some familiarity with them and lets me participate in experiencing them without actually reading them. This sounds like a copout, but I don’t believe it is. Sure, it’s not as deep a familiarity as if I *did* read the book, but it’s something, and something’s better than nothing. I’m thinking of the excerpts from philosophers that I read in high school and college. I’m glad I read the excerpts–it’s not the same thing as reading a whole work, but it’s definitely something.

    Now, when you ignore the person you disagree with because they’re wrong, but quibble with the person you do agree with, what purpose are you serving?
    It’s a good question, and I do think sometimes–maybe often–it can be counterproductive to do that. But I think what happens is that the more important something is to someone, the more they want to see it expressed/defended/represented precisely the way they themselves conceive it–hence the hot arguments over what seem like small matters to outsiders.

    Or maybe it’s avoidance–avoiding the big battles, which are so difficult, in favor of the small ones. Not sure…

    • Justin says :

      There’s actually a book by Pierre Bayard called “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t read”. Of course, I haven’t read it.

      To your other point – the quibble issue. I can easily see this as being another manifestation of the tone argument,and in that way being counter-productive. And there is likely an avoidance issue. But there’s also something to be gained in talking about work we wanted to like that disappoints us, than work we didn’t expect to like and don’t. Unless you’re a critic or someone who wants to be the expert on a genre, then yeah, you have to wade through everything.

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