I’ve always wondered what percentage of books started actually get finished, and of those books not finished, which are on loan and which are purchased at the local bookstore. I tend to think that people will suffer through a bad book that they bought in order to protect their investment, but cast a free-read aside at the first sign of yawndom. It’s probably a similar percentage to those movies viewed in their entirety at home on television versus those watched at the local cinema. Perhaps I’m a little more sensitive to this issue of reading books cover to cover because I write and review books for a living. Like an idealistic teacher who looks at each and every student in the classroom as capable of wondrous achievements, I approach the reading of a new book with sanguine expectation.
But cockeyed optimism will carry you just so far (about fifty pages).
I mention this because when I started writing book reviews eight years ago, I made a vow never to review a book I couldn’t finish. Easier said than done. I think it was the third book I was contracted to review that I realized my folly. After reading nearly two hundred pages (holding my nose most of the way), I just couldn’t continue. I had to call the newspaper and tell them the bad news – no review. They understood.
But that didn’t solve my problem. It only made me aware of it. From then on it seemed every galley proof and editor’s copy I picked up was a real stinker. Before too long I was well on my way to becoming a raging bibliophobe. I tell you I couldn’t even look at a book without grinding my teeth and getting a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.
I was in a real pickle. A handful of books assigned and nary a one read and reviewed. Something had to give. So, I took stock of the situation, even consulted a Zen mystic healer (an old roommate of mine). The epiphany came like a lightning bolt. Here it is: As a novelist I was being asked to review other novels. Asking a novelist to review other novels is like asking an Italian chef to critique another Italian chef’s spaghetti sauce. How objective could I be? Answer: Don’t review novels.
Now I review everything but novels e.g., biographies, histories, science, travelogues, polemics, etc. And it seems every book I open is a finisher. Ultimately (or I should say ironically) isn’t that the mission of every book, to teach the reader something novel?
Richard Horan is an award-winning author who lives and writes in Central New York. His forthcoming novel, "SEEDS: One Man's Journey to Find America’s Literary Trees," is due out in 2010.