Rules of the Road

Books have speed limits.

Some you can breeze through, a quick run along a sunny straightaway, windows open and wind in your ears.  Others demand that you slow down, pay attention, move with care.

For the slow-but-dedicated reader, if there is a special plea or prayer upon picking up a new, dense book, it should be “Please don’t waste my time.”  I’m one of those readers who feels a compulsion to finish what I start.  I seem constitutionally incapable of just putting a book aside part way through and never coming back to it.

Oh, I’ve done it!  Years later, though, if I stumble across that book, ignored in a box or on the shelf of someone to whom I’ve loaned it, I experience a moment of guilt, a regret that I somehow betrayed it, and that it may take umbrage for having been dallied with and left for another.   “So…a restless spirit haunts over every book, till dust or worms have seized upon it, which to some may happen in a few days, but to others later…” according to Jonathan Swift.  Death to a book is to be ignored.

But we are mortal and have only so much time.  I have a crabbed admiration for people who can decide within ten pages that what follows is not worth their time and can put it aside without a twinge of conscience.  (Crabbed because another part of me keeps wondering what they’re missing.)

“Please don’t waste my time.”  For me, part of the problem is an inability to know if a book will be a waste of time.  Possibly some paragraph or a chapter or even a line from a character will make the whole thing worthwhile.

I read in anticipation.  This is true of all books.  I’m looking for something.  Surprisingly, I find it more often than not, and in this I have to count myself fortunate.  I have read books not worth my time and most of them I have forgotten.  But something of them lingers and sometimes I recognize them again, at least as a type, and before I make the mistake of reading the first chapter (if I get past page 30 I’m trapped, I must go on) I avoid what I sense is coming.

My own discipline notwithstanding, that is my main rule of this particular road: Don’t waste my time.  I can always be proven wrong, but there are certain books I’m not interested in reading.  Certain kinds of books I should say.  I don’t want to hurt their feelings, I don’t want to feel betrayed.  Books are like people—some are compatible, others should be avoided.

I’ll likely never read another Stephanie Meyers book.  Ever.  (I read The Host—don’t worry, I was paid to, for a professional review—and I found it exceptionally dull, too long for its weight, derivative, and a cheat.  That’s the worst reaction I’ve had to a novel in decades.)  On the other hand, I will likely read everything Iain M. Banks publishes.

I recently read Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon and it’s the perfect example of a book with a speed limit.  Slow down, pass with care, deer crossing ahead.  A paradox, because it is a broad, multi-laned road with no posted limits.  But zipping through it would be to miss everything.  Autobiographical in the sense that Heat Moon is the narrator and the trip recorded was his hegira around the continental United States—but not in the sense that it is about him.  While it is impossible that his own self and life could be kept entirely out, it’s about the road and its impact on the traveler he was.  The main character is the journey.  The sights along the way demand attention.  You do not speed read a book like this, which is reflected in the stated purpose of his travels on the back roads, state highways, and some seldom-used tracts in parts of the country most of us have no idea exist.  If you want to go fast, take the superhighways.  And see nothing.

But if you’re interested in landscape, in impressions of setting on character, on the topography of perception and topology of awareness…

That’s the kind of book I intend to talk about here.

Another rule of the road for me is going to be the advocacy of writers and of local bookstores.  Writers do what they do because they—most of them—love it.  It can be a difficult relationship, to be sure, but the deeper the love the better the result.  Which by extension invites the further relationship with the reader.  Where you first meet is actually important.  Buying from big chains is like engaging a series of one-night-stands.  Buy your books locally, get to know your bookseller, and by extension support the writer.

More on that later.

As to the kinds of books I love to read and which I’ll write about here, well…I said I am a slow reader.  Once, back in high school, I took a speed reading course.  By the time I graduated high school I was reading about 2500 words a minute.  I could go through an average sized book in an evening if I wanted.  I read a lot of  books that way.

What I did not have was very much fun.  I slowed down intentionally.  It occasionally takes me an inordinate length of time to read a book.  I get through about 70 to 80 a year, cover to cover, and I’m usually reading 3 or 4 simultaneously.

Which means I am not “current.”  The last book I finished was Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, which was published back in 1984.  I finished it just before the New Year.  It, too, demanded careful reading and I took my time.  Point being, I am irretrievably “behind” in my reading and will likely remain so—largely without regret or much feeling that it’s causing me any harm.

But I do read new books now and then and I may read more for the purposes of this column.

Another caveat:  I make a distinction between “like” and “good.”  There are plenty of books we read that we like but which, by any metric of craft or art, are not especially good.  I read Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter of Mars novels when I was a kid and I really, really liked them.  From time to time, I pick one up again and I find I still like them, but I can’t say they’re very good.  On the other hand, I read James Joyce’s Ulysses and have no hesitancy at all declaring it to be not only a good book but a great one—but I didn’t particularly like it.  I will do my best to state my prejudice in this regard when it seems relevant.

To be sure, if I write about it here, it meant something to me.  It had an impact.  It was a worthwhile journey.  But none of us ever really go down the same road, even if we get on at the same ramp.  My journey won’t be the same as anyone else’s.

And isn’t that the very best thing about good books?