It’s Charlotte Brontë’s fault.
The first third of Jane Eyre is unbearably boring and then – out of nowhere – you cannot put it down. As a result, I’m committed to slogging through books I should quit on because just maybe they’ll redeem themselves two-quarters of the way through.
That is why my inability to quit on a book is Charlotte Brontë’s fault.
Many people endorse quitting if you “get the gist,” but that has always felt sacrilegious to me. The truth is many books published today could be blog posts. And many authors aren’t writers. And they publish books that waste our time.
Whenever I’m feeling like I cannot get through whatever I’m reading – not for lack of mental effort, but on account of boredom – I like to revisit the classics, which is precisely what I’ve been doing for the better part of a year.
I went back and re-opened Candide. I finally finished Walden, instead of just quoting parts of it all the time (and wrote up my (lack of) takeaways here). I bought every nonfiction James Baldwin known to woman (I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again: start with The Fire Next Time and Nobody Knows My Name. The secrets to the universe are revealed in his nonfiction).
I got some Didion. Honestly, I’m not a huge fan, though I appreciate why she matters. 1960s writing drives me bananas. It’s always written with a hint of (what feels like) gratuitous pretension that makes it deeply irritating to read. I can forgive (even enjoy) elitism, but I have no patience for pretension. Margaret Atwood makes fun of it in her book The Edible Woman (I wouldn’t call it a classic, but it was pretty provocative both in subject and form – literally halfway through the book she goes from second to first person and you have to do a double take).
I just started A Swim in a Pond in The Rain, which is technically new, but not. George Saunders takes you through classic Russian short stories and it feels like sitting in your favorite class in college all over again.
Books are the best medicine for the soul and there is no reason to waste your valuable time on books that don’t feed your heart, challenge your mind, and illuminate your world.
[Though, I admittedly do. Send HALP.]
New and Notable is an illusion. It’s a marketing gimmick just like “staff picks” (which are always good). If you’re feeling low on love from your current read, go time-traveling.
The Count of Monte Cristo is a dude who can’t get over his literal murderous rage. Candide and Canterbury Tales were the original South Park, VEEP, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Sense and Sensibility is the OG Bridgerton. Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath share every white woman’s coming-of-age story, but in a way that has gravitas (if you have children and have not devoured A Room of One’s Own, you may do so now).
And don’t even with Shakespeare. It’s basically made for TNT-level drama. Whatever your flavor. Revenge? Scandal? Murder? Plotting murder? Psychological strife? Moral quandary? Love? Sex? Pride? BETRAYAL?! He’s got you.
Pick your genre and jump.
George Saunders writes that the main thing we need to be asking together (and I endorse this point of view) when we read something is, “What did we feel and where did we feel it?” He says, “All coherent intellectual work begins with a genuine reaction.”
I agree. And if your genuine reaction is, “I’m SO BORED” or you’re forcing your way through what could have been a blog post – read the blog post and move on with your life (I’m speaking to myself here, too).
Life is too short and magnificent to waste on pieces that don’t pique your curiosity and make you feel something. That’s not to say “read what’s easy and fun” – that is to say, let it be worth your time.
When I find work I love, I slow it down (unless it is Celeste Ng, in which case, devour it). Maybe two pages a day. Because my heart gets filled with so much joy, my curiosity piqued to a level I cannot contain, and my imagination runs wild.
Let yourself fall back in love.
Saunders argues that readers like us remind him that “there is a vast underground network for goodness at work in the world,” (page 7 here). Reading makes us “more expansive, generous people and makes [our] lives more interesting.”
It’s true. I know it’s true because of the emails I get from you each week. There is a vast underground network for goodness at work in the world.
Let’s fan it, ignite it, encourage it.
Many people skim. Many escape. Few truly read.
Take your time. There are plenty of good books.
Go find them.
PS: This post was inspired by the man in a football hoodie and baseball cap, who was easily 6’1”, 220lbs, and was reading The Iliad at 10 AM on a Monday at a Starbucks in Overland Park, KS. He turned to me and asked what I was reading and shared why he was re-reading what he read in high school, today from the perspective of a 45-year-old man with the build and presentation of a bro linebacker.
I don’t know who you are, but I love that you exist.
There is indeed a vast underground network for goodness at work in the world.
And we are part of it.