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October 28, 2005

TT: In the bud

A friend writes:

It was only in the last few years I developed the spine to stop reading a book if I don't like it. Now I even throw one in the trash if I really hate it. The one from which I most recently defected was "The Great Fire" by Shirley Hazzard, and I feel guilty because so many classy people like it, but it just irritated the hell out of me.

Alas, I have no opinion of Shirley Hazzard (sorry, OGIC), but I wholeheartedly endorse pulling the plug on books you don't like. Nor have I ever had a problem with doing so, though it may have more to do with my being a professional journalist than having a well-developed spine. Journalists, after all, are chronic skippers and skimmers. We have to be, since we spend much of our working lives "getting up" subjects about which we too often know little or nothing prior to being assigned to write about them. I've reached the point in my career where I pick most of my own subjects, but back when I wasn't in a position to be so choosy, I was more than willing to say yes to any assignment, however arcane. I learned to simulate the appearance of knowledge--this is what is meant by the well-known saying that a journalist's mind is a mile wide and a quarter-inch deep--and one of the ways I did it was by learning how to strain the gist out of a book without reading it from cover to cover.

It stands to reason that Dr. Johnson, one of the all-time great skippers, should have spoken the last word on those who insist on "reading books through":

This is surely a strange advice; you may as well resolve that whatever men you happen to get acquainted with, you are to keep them for life. A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?

Except for my correspondent, the only person I can think of who has had such a problem was Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Justice Holmes was constitutionally incapable of putting down an unfinished book until he reached extreme old age and finally came to his senses. But, then, Justice Holmes was a prime specimen of that queerest and least comprehensible of breeds, the secular puritan. As Edmund Wilson explains in Patriotic Gore:

His reading is dominated by a sense of duty and a Puritanical fear of idleness. He feels that he must grapple with certain works, quite apart from any pleasure they give him, and, once having begun a book, no matter how dull or verbose it is, he must read every word to the end. He is always imagining--this is humorous, of course, but it shows a habit of mind--that God, at the Judgment Day, will ask him to report on the books which he ought to have read but hasn't.

I greatly admire Holmes, but I love Dr. Johnson, and this is one of the reasons why. He had what he called "a bottom of good sense," and for all his extreme peculiarities, it rarely let him down. Whatever the subject, you can usually count on him to cut through the posturing and get to the point. I, too, take it for granted that God has better things to do than inquire as to my reading habits--though He may well want a word with me about one or two books that I reviewed in my incautious youth without first having read them from cover to cover!

These lapses notwithstanding, I'd say Dr. Johnson hit it on the nose. I expect a lot out of the books I read, and when they fail to deliver the goods, I toss them aside with a clear conscience and no second thoughts. Life is so very short--and so often shorter than we expect--that it seems a fearful mistake to waste even the tiniest part of it submitting voluntarily to unnecessary boredom. Bad enough that my job sometimes requires me to sit through plays whose sheer awfulness is self-evident well before the end of the first scene. So if you really want me to read each and every page of your thousand-page biography of Millard Fillmore, send me a check. I have my price.

Posted October 28, 2005 12:05 PM

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