When you don't like the book you're reading....

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.

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