By Jennifer Levasseur
My fantasy sometimes shifts into nightmare: towers of books on every surface, each new must-read publication waiting for me, shelves of lauded (yet still unread) novels and histories and stories and essays. Bounty, depending on my mood, becomes indictment or thrill or never-fulfilled obligation or weight on my conscience. The piles that line my home glitter with possibility—or loom with threats to smother me in my sleep.
Don’t worry: I never forget what a privilege it is to take home (or have them magically appear at my door) new, fresh books every day. Just yesterday I acquired a new history of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, a Chilean novel about a blind writer, a history of three generations of Iranian women, an American novel set in New England that promises to shock in the tradition of Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson, and an Australian novel about a broken family.* I am a junkie with an unlimited supply. Even if the flood were to suddenly dry up, I can sit here in my chair—without shifting my posture—and count more than three hundred and fifty titles I have not yet read. And these are ones I keep because I do want to read them. That doesn’t even take into account the ones I want to re-read, the ones I read over and over.
As a professional reader, I feel the pressure to help steward good books into the world, to deliver them to the right readers. (As we learned in The Velveteen Rabbit, even the most worthy object doesn’t come alive until it’s loved.) My role is minor, of course (and it helps to remember that), but I can do my small part. So when I sit down to read, I’m not reading for myself alone but for the writer and in the hope that I’ll improve the lives of a few other readers.
At my best, I have at least four books on the go: one that requires my fiercest, most focused attention, one on audio (this one, I consider an extra opportunity, read while walking or on the tram or doing housework, so I choose more wildly and with less intention), one that lives at work and captures only half an hour of my attention per day during a rushed lunch, and one for an hour of drowsy reading in bed before sleep.
So why do I feel like I’ve read so little this year? Here’s the confession: I’ve given up on more books over the course of these three months than I ever have before. While I believe that a book deserves a certain amount of fidelity, it’s not a marriage and it doesn’t even have to be a long-term relationship. I kiss and flee all the time: read a page or two and decide against taking it further. But if I start at page one and continue for three chapters, should I forge on if I’m mildly interested? How, when so many other spines beckon me from the shelves? Perversely, I sometimes immediately re-read a book I’ve hated, just to make sure.
Why do I do this? Partly because I have faith in the writer to create something of beauty and value that I might not yet be able to understand or appreciate. A book’s worth must be more than my personal, eclectic and irrational love or hate, even though that’s always part of it.
Here’s the default that my most beloved professor taught me many years ago, one that I put foremost in my mind every time I prepare to review a book: Begin with the conviction that you’re about to read (or see or hear) the best thing you’ve ever experienced. That way, you’re not easily impressed, but you’re prepped to be wowed.
And always (always) take a work of art of its own terms. It’s not a failure if it’s a Western and you wanted a romance.
The writer is trying to tell you, and me, something. She might fail miserably, but it might be worth my time to lean in a little closer, to try more before I toss her work aside. How do I offer all of this time, though, when I add four or six books each day? No wonder publishers too often opt for the failsafe, for the known instead of taking a chance on a challenging writer, one without (the horror!) a social media following.
I have given up this year on novels after a hundred pages, but I’ve also read at least one book three times. Still, I fear I’m being rash. Did I toss aside Moby-Dick during the blubber lectures? Or Anna Karenina during yet another round of hay-making? Didn’t I fall asleep (multiple times) during a biography that I now consider germinal?
This does not mean that no standards apply. I reject dozens of titles every day through my own prejudices. Goodbye, almost every thriller ever written, which I find too stressful. Better luck with someone else, romantic comedy. It’s not me, it’s you, pedestrian novel that lacks a spark of je ne sais quoi.
Here’s my best answer so far to the question of when to give up on a book: I let it go when it stops me from reading. When I don’t read at all so I don’t have to read the one I’ve committed to.
My best reads so far this year have come as surprises, almost despite my own inclinations: the light historical tome The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson (published mid March), a warm bath of a book with lovely characters and a comfortable structure; Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave (due late April), a Second World War novel set in London with some on the best, unexpected dialogue I’ve read in years; The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie, a strange but oddly moving story of a woman who thinks she hears squirrels talking to her and her boyfriend who’s working on a device to treat head trauma in battle (I know, I tried to put it down but I couldn’t); and When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, a novel for children about losing and gaining friends (and, of course, time travel).
So I read on, to paraphrase the wonderful title of Maureen Corrigan’s study of The Great Gatsby. I reach for the next Beware of Pity, the future Unbearable Lightness of Being, for the book I’ll put next to The Wrecked, Blessed Body of Shelton Lafleur. The writers I’ll place in my personal canon—alongside Laurie Colwin and Kent Haruf, who joined last year. I’ll read on, expecting to be pulled in by some currents, pushed away by others, ceaselessly and with the expectation of greatness.
*Summer Before the Dark: Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, Ostend 1936 by Volker Weidermann and translated by Carol Brown Janeway; Seeing Red by Lina Meruane and translated by Megan McDowell; Scattered Pearls: Three Generations of Iranian Women and Their Search for Freedom by Sohila Zanjani with David Brewster; Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh; and Between a Wolf and a Dog by Georgia Blain