Wednesday, February 01, 2012

On reading bad books

Life is too short to waste time reading bad books, and yet I sometimes find myself slogging through a book I'd really rather throw through a plate-glass window. Why?

Sometimes a bad book provides valuable context for a better book. Want to understand the convoluted logic of the Old Plantation Myth that enticed readers of popular American fiction from around 1890 to 1920? Then you're going to have to hold your nose and read Thomas Dixon's wretched novel The Leopard's Spots, full of abhorrent racist rhetoric that inspired a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. When I introduce students to the Old Plantation Myth to help them understand Charles Chesnutt's subversive short stories, I tell them, "I read Thomas Dixon so you don' t have to."

Sometimes a badly written book is a gift from a friend or colleague who is likely to ask me for a response, and I'd better read the whole thing so I can locate the bright shining moments to mention in conversation. (And if you think I'm planning to mention any titles or authors, think again.)

Sometimes a bad book is just silly enough to provide lightweight comic relief in an other wise gloomy week. Many of the self-published books sent to me by earnest strangers seeking my affirmation fall in this category, offering up mixed metaphors and sentences of such clunkiness that they make me laugh--but that doesn't mean I'll read the whole thing. If you haven't hooked me by the end of the first chapter, it goes into the recycling pile. (Sorry, self-published authors: I know there's some talent out there, but editors exist for a reason!)

Sometimes a bad book holds out the hope that it just might get a whole lot better, but by the time I realize it's a hopeless case, I'm too far in to turn back. Recently, for instance, I've received in the mail piles of unsolicited books from writers who read about my California Literature class in the Los Angeles Times and think my students would enjoy reading their work. Some of them are good and some are not half bad, but today I read a flimsy novel that is, essentially, a pale imitation of Nathanael West, and not even the mature Nathanael West who wrote The Day of the Locust but the juvenile West of The Secret Life of Balso Snell. We don't need another Nathanael West, number one, and number two, even if we needed another Nathanael West, we certainly don't need any pale imitations of Balso Snell.

But I think I'm done reading bad books for a little while at least. I would bet that the number of bad books I've read in my lifetime exceeds the total number of books most of my English majors have read. I've reached my quota; it's time for someone else to take over. Bad books, anyone? Just say the word and I'll send one on its way.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Moby Dick and similar examples that once were very bad books might offer wreckers' hope and illumination, a dangerous illusion. So we plough forward, not knowing whether we're just crap or really, really crap. We're overtaken by speedier and more seaworthy vessels. We hope that our frail craft will one day find a harbor. We know we're probably doomed to oblivion, but then again, so are most people. We wonder whether we're enjoying the voyage at all. And then, suddenly, there's one reader. Hooray for the generosity and patience of readers.