When Books are Just Fine

I’ve read several books this year that were fine. Serviceable. Some even contained elements to admire. I wasn’t mad at them. They were fine.

But I don’t read to read books that are fine. I read to be moved, to be entertained, to be inspired, to be impressed, to be wound around unexpected corners of thought, and to find myself startled or massaged into emotion. I read to experience different worlds, lives, minds than my own. I read to know more. Which is why I find a “fine” book almost more disappointing than an outright bad one.

I’m also mindful of the fact that the number of available to me books is effectively infinite, while my human life is very, very finite. And while I do read quite a bit I have only a couple thousands of books left in my life. I hate to waste even a one of them.

At the same time, I hate to waste the time put into a book. Years ago I stopped slogging through books I wasn’t enjoying. I learnt that sometimes books aren’t right for you at the time but may be for you down the road. I also learned that reading should be for you and there are no points for finishing. And I found that sticking with a book I wasn’t into was a good tactic for not reading at all.

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But something shifted, perhaps because of grad school where I had to stick with books regardless of my enjoyment and learned how to barrel through even the most ponderous of tomes. I learned that even those tiresome texts usually had something worthwhile embedded in them. Graduate school is also probably when I learned the unique pleasure of the hate-read, the vicious joy of reading with an eye to a finely calibrated smack-down.

And I do enjoy a good argumentative dismantling of a text. It’s why I methodically worked my way through The Miniaturist so I could hone my explanation of exactly what was wrong with it and why no one should read it because it’s terrible and I’ll explain why. But that same pleasure doesn’t apply to the fine books.

Having read deeply, closely, and a lot also means that my expectations have recalibrated. Like wine and whiskey and even beer, once your tastes have been elevated it’s hard to take in the lower quality stuff. This fact isn’t snobbery. It’s experience, but it can also feel like you’ve lost your ability to just swallow whatever is on offer and be alright with it, contented even.

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Ironically, much of what I find merely fine have been the current top ranked novels of the year. It stands to reason, I suppose, that few of the best books of the year will stack up against the best books of all time. But the books out now are what get all the press and I start to feel like I’m missing some crucial piece of the literary zeitgeist. And occasionally one of those highly-praised books is, indeed, fantastic.

Last year I finally broke down and read A Visit from the Good Squad (2011) by Jennifer Egan, and was blown away by it. Buying copies as Christmas gifts, the clerk at my local used/new bookstore mentioned that the novel had been on his list for a while and he wondered if he should finally read it. When I explained how I had also waited to read it and found it as good as everyone said he replied, “Yeah, that makes sense. I find that about ten years is the right amount of time. If people are still talking about a book after 8-10 years, it’s probably worth the while.”

So how to proceed. Should I begin abandoning the “fine” books, lifetime supply of time and texts be damned? Should I let them be what they are, for me, at the time, get through them and move on? What’s your policy re: books that aren’t sparking for you?