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November 22, 2017

The books I didn’t read

Last month I wrote a post called “Where do my books come from?”, whose title was pretty self-explanatory. And I am curious to explore the ideas within it further, beyond the wheres of my book choices to the whys. That I read Guidebook to Relative Strangers because two friends (one online, one in the park) had recommended it to me in the same week; I read My Conversations With Canadians after seeing Lee Maracle speak at Word on the Street. But before I get to the whys, I want to finally write down a post that’s been on my mind for awhile, a post about the books I didn’t read. Which requires me to underline again that I receive books in the post almost every day of the week from publishers, in addition to the considerable number of books I purchase from bookstores, meaning there are always inevitably going to be books I didn’t read. Some will filtered out by my own biases: books about inspirational dogs, YA books about dragons, middle grade and YA books in general (though there are exceptions), books without women in them, books about regional politics, and books about academic theory, and paranormal erotica.

It’s not so much that there is anything wrong with these books or these genres per se, it’s just that I have so many other books to read and if I’m going to have dismiss some it makes sense to dismiss the ones that don’t interest me. If I were paid to read widely, then one might argue I have an obligation to explore all the literary avenues, but this is my blog and anyone who comes here arrives expecting to read about the books I want to read, not the books I’ve read by obligation. And yes, I know I will indeed miss out on some wonderful books by dismissing many so categorically—but the sad fact of the matter that I’m still coming to terms with is that I can’t read all the books in the world I want to read, so I’m hardly going to worry about the ones that I don’t.

Which is not to say that I’m not obligated to expand my horizons, of course, or to look critically at the limits of my reading experience. Once upon a time, ages and ages ago, I realized I was missing out on books published by small independent publishers, and for a while especially sought these out—but then very soon after I didn’t have to do the seeking because the whole thing had become habitual. Similarly, about five years ago it occurred to me that I was mostly only reading books by authors who were white. I was fortunate that I had this revelation at the same moment so many other people did, because suddenly there seemed to be a bigger spotlight on Indigenous writers and writers who were people of colour and I didn’t have to go out of my way to find these books.

And can I just mention that the reason I want to find these books is not out of some demonstration of virtue or social obligation, but because it’s kind of weird to live in a world populated by people from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds and realize that you mostly only read books by people who are white? Think of all the stories and voices you are missing. I don’t want to be that narrow as a reader. I also happen to find those stories and voices very interesting—and so these are the reasons by books by Indigenous writers and people of colour are less likely to be the books I didn’t read.

On the other hand, I don’t tend to read books by men. I have to be very diplomatic about this. I have to be diplomatic about this because someone I know recently posted such a statement on Facebook, to which someone respond with an angry tirade they then deleted and then they unfriended her. Clearly, this is a sensitive issue. And I address this by stating that I have piles and piles of books to be read, and it’s not that I don’t want to read the books by men but that I want to read the books by women first (because I find them more interesting) and if I’m ever through with the books by women I’ll get to the men books—but this hasn’t happened yet.

Also, the other night I was posting flippant tweets about reading books by men, and then later I considered the authors whose works my tweets were dismissing and I felt a bit guilty for potentially hurting their feelings. AND THEN. And then it occurred to me that (I am quite sure) not a single one of these authors felt obligated to read my book (if you are a man and you read my book, I know exactly who you are and I am really grateful to you, and I can also count the number of you on my fingers) so I stopped feeling guilty after that.

So just say you are a woman, or a Black man, and/or you’ve written a book that’s not about an inspirational dog, which is to say that you’ve just made it into my sacred reading lair—what might compel me to stop reading your book once I’ve bothered to stop reading? Bad typesetting, for sure. A hideous cover—book design is important. Typos. Allusions to an artist or philosopher I’ve never heard of is another—I really just don’t want to read the book you’ve written imagining 19th century polemicist Tomas Niskanovich Pornakarsky as a squeegee kid on the streets of Saskatoon. Once a few years ago I stopped reading a novel on Page 7 because the main character noted that he’d begun to find older women attractive and subsequently became overwhelmed by feelings of dread (which is another reason I don’t tend to read books by men, by the way).

Two weeks ago, I stopped reading a novel because it was 500 pages long, all the women characters were ethereal, and I hated the book more and more with every paragraph—and I’d already read to page 200. It was a novel that was desperately trying to be Fates and Furies, which I must admit was also a novel that tested my patience as a reader, but I had such confidence in its author that I persisted. Not so much with its derivative.

Often I put down a book determining, “It’s just not for me.” This, honestly, is not the same thing as determining, “This novel is a piece of garbage” (which, of course, is another reason I will put down a book, but wouldn’t you?). Sometimes I see the literary merit of a book but I’m just not very interested in the project. Can I bear to suffer through 300 pages of this? Possibly an inspirational dog has bounded in on page 27, catching me unaware. Maybe there is also a child narrator, which I have a really hard time with. Or the book is written as a series of paragraph-long chapter vignettes, and I decided I’m going to have as much trouble focussing as the book’s author apparently did.

My terrible confession is this: there is an incredible correlation between the books I’ve started reading and abandoned for being not for me (or never bothered to pick up at all) and books that have gone on to be nominated for all the major literary prizes in Canada. I might have the very worst literary instincts in this country.

I tend to put books down if they feature a character whose best friend has died of cancer and that death has inspired main character to change the way she lives her life, particularly if I happen to have picked up this book when I am in the waiting period for biopsy results. Along those lines, I have never read The Bear, by Claire Cameron, because it came out while I was pregnant with my second child and terrified I was going to die of thyroid cancer, and so the premise of a book about a child whose parents die at the very beginning was too terrifying for me to contemplate. I have also never read The Crooked Heart of Mercy, by Billie Livingston, because it’s about a family whose child dies, and I seem to have turned into the kind of person who kinds such narratives too hard to ponder—but I think I am going to read it at some point, because I’ve heard so many good things about it.

I almost didn’t read Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, because I’d had a lot of trouble with her first book and Station Eleven was post-apocalyptic—but then I ended up loving it. I didn’t read Truly Madly Guilty, by Lianne Moriarty, when it first crossed my path because I’d read a dismissive review of it and thought it wasn’t worth my time, but then I read Big Little Lies and realized that Lianne Moriarty was a genius. So I’m not saying my system is infallible, but the point is that I did find my way to these books eventually, and more often than not I think my instincts are right about the kinds of books that work for me, and so I trust them. And why not? It’s not like there’s ever been a shortage of books that I am totally in love with.

I kind of insist on my right to not like a book, to hate a book even. To be uninterested in a book, or dismiss it without having read it. Because life is too short and the books are too long. I think this insistence has helped to me as an author to process and even appreciate those readers (I believe there were three and a half of them—poor souls) for whom my book was not their cup of tea. There really are so many books out there, and I’m glad that readers are free to plot their own ways through them, to pick and choose based even on the most arbitrary things. This kind of freedom is what keeps life interesting, and enables literary conversations to mean something when they happen.

4 thoughts on “The books I didn’t read”

  1. Sarah says:

    Without even realizing, I’ve almost only read books written by women this year, except for the Steve Burrows mysteries and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles which was one of my favourites. And my other favourites were mostly Canadian – I know what my plan is for next year.

    1. Kerry says:

      More books by women, I hope!!

      1. Sarah says:

        Of course! I’m waiting for your best of 2017 list to help with that!

  2. Yes. “Thumbs up emoji”. Thanks Kerry.

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