Don’t Read a Book Out of Its Right Time

In my experiences with physical endeavors (running and yoga), the most important lesson I’ve learned over the years is that being able to plow through anything is not the ultimate sign of development or maturity, it’s knowing when to pull back. I’m not sure why I’ve been so hesitant to apply this truth to my reading life as well. There’s always a certain guilt, or maybe just a disappointment, when you pick up a book, especially one that’s been lauded far and wide, and you know you’re going to struggle to stay with it. You don’t connect with the narrator, the style feels too laborious. It reminds you too much of something else you recently read and you’re not in the mood for another book that deals with X, employs the same plot device, etc., etc. Still, we hang in there convinced that we just need to get through those introductory 50 pages to really start to love something.

The number of books I was hesitant about at their start and loved after 50, 30, hell, 20, pages, in is probably hovering around zero, and while there are times that it is good and necessary to read things that we don’t love, without this external obligation or incentive I think I’m finding that the more valuable thing to do is to simply stop reading. Every time I feel guilty about putting down a book, I remember this perfect reflection from Doris Lessing:

There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag-and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a movement. Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty-and vise versa. Don’t read a book out of its right time for you.

In case you were curious, the book that is out of its right time for me is War & Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans. Maybe it’ll be right for me next week, maybe in six months, maybe never. But for now, I’m probably, no, definitely, going to put it down and move on. Otherwise, I’m doing both myself and Mr. Hertmans a disservice.

*Photo credit (Doris Lessing): Garoa


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  1. Mr. Brain April 7, 2017 at 3:38 pm

    As one who tried many times to read Moby Dick to no avail until one day I actually listened to the audiobook and it opened up to me as a vastness that I could not exhaust. My pleasure in it is palpable every time I go back to it. It reveals more of itself and more of me TO me.

    There is a difficult question at the heart of every discussion of reading–especially in a time when publishing is something like a Niagara of words–What do you have TIME to read in a life? Why return to books you couldn’t “get into” if in all likelihood they were written as commercial product more than an expression of soul or a grappling with the universe and existence.

    That’s not to offer a guilt-trip about WHAT we pick up and read. I read way too much dross online everyday. But it IS a necessary question. What do other minds have to share with us? “entertainment” or “truth”? Who’s to say? And who will pick up Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook more than once? Why should I return to Infinite Jest? I’m not going to, I promise you. And I’ve reread Nicholas Christopher’s Veronica 3 or 4 times because I love its weird world, but I’m sure it’s not great literature. It did introduce me to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, though…so there’s that.

    The Great Gatsby always feels “light” to me–why is it so important? I’m still unsure of this though I know many many many academic careers have been made upon its interpretation.

    We all get to make these decisions for ourselves. Reading IS fun; it can be thrilling and vicarious. It can be heavy and depressing even; it can reveal worlds that we’d never even thought possible with just a few words. It can be trash…for good or bad!

    1. Sarah April 7, 2017 at 4:31 pm

      Good points! I guess ultimately we get to decide what we want reading to be, and sometimes it can be a good challenge to try something that doesn’t sit entirely well, but I suppose being in that mood is also a choice, right? Mostly, like you said, I look for things to reveal worlds for me – good, bad, interesting, creative, entertaining. I don’t know, this book just didn’t pique anything for me.


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