Some books I can't put down -- I read them hungrily in stolen bits of time that stretch into minutes when I should be doing something else, like going to bed or work or meeting friends. Other books I can't seem to pick up. They sit on the shelf and I ignore them the same way I ignore old food in the fridge that's certainly rotten by now. I look the other way and think of something else, anything other than the book that I decided to read and now can't bear to open.
A few years ago I heard a librarian say if a book hasn't grabbed you in 50 pages, you shouldn't keep reading it. And she said anyone over the age of 50 should subtract one page for every year after that.
"Life's too short to read bad books," she said.
Her rule was a relief to me, but also made me nervous. Is it really OK to put down a book forever after 50 pages? This is something I have wondered about over the years. I'm so duty-bound that I'm still pretty sure there's a deity who will punish me someday for giving up on "Don Quixote" and "Uncle Tom's Cabin," or at the very least revoke my college diploma.
This fall I decided to plow through every book on my bookshelves that I'd never read. But I could only face this task armed with the librarian's rule. And that's how James Michener's "Texas" ended up on my table. I picked it up at a used book sale three years ago. My mom loves Michener and owns several of his books, but I'd never read any of them. When I finally started reading "Texas," I loved the premise of the book and was excited to learn something about the vast
state's history and culture.
But now I'm on page 43 and struggling to make it to 50.
I liked the writing style at first, but then got bogged down by stories of battle and Native Americans and missionaries and bloodshed. So I put off reading those last seven pages by knitting, playing games on my phone and, yes, writing a blog post about not reading.
I'm sure Michener's a great writer. Maybe the book will get better, though I'm not eager to read past page 50 to find out. I'm also not ready to give it up and face my shame that I might have failed as a reader due to my lack of interest.
But for some reason it doesn't feel OK to say, "That book's just not for me." Instead, I guiltily shove a book I can't bear to finish under a stack of magazines, and thinking about said book almost makes me nauseous. Maybe it's because I was an English major in college and believe I should love all books written by great writers.
Or maybe it's because it seems like stopping mid-book violates a commitment I've made. Starting a book is like signing up for the armed services. You'd better finish your term, or else you're a quitter. Our society hates quitters, whether in sports, politics, on the job or in school. Quitters exhibit a character flaw, an inability to commit and see something through.
That's why I like the librarian's 50-page rule. She views reading a book not as a commitment like joining the Army, but more like a first date: If you're not impressed, don't call the guy back. My vow to follow the 50-page rule has led me to read books I might not otherwise pick up for fear of not being able to finish them, and I've enjoyed some surprising finds.
I liked "Up Periscope," a story about a World War II diver sent on a dangerous mission in the Pacific. The title seemed boring, so for years I never bothered to venture past the cover. When I finally did, I found it exciting to step into that unfamiliar world. And Arthur Miller's "Focus," a haunting novella about a man in early 20th century New York City who unexpectedly finds himself a target of anti-Semitism, was impossible to stop reading and thrust me into a time and place I realized I knew nothing about.
But I gave up on Joseph Heller's "Good as Gold," about a man who decides to write about the American Jewish experience to prove his worthiness to his unimpressed wife and family. At least I think that's what it was about. It just wasn't for me.
I expect I'll come to the same conclusion about "Texas" when I get through those seven pages. After that, I think a book by Jane Goodall is next on the list. Let's see if her writing enthralls me as much as tales of her research always have.
Tatiana Zarnowski lives in Ballston Spa, N.Y., where she has reluctantly given up on "Texas" and put it in the "donate" pile since writing this post.
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