John Grisham taught me not to read.
Over ten years ago, I was attempting to schlog through John Grisham’s third novel The Chamber. I loved the movie version of The Firm and memories from the movie enhanced my experience with the novel when I read it afterward. The Pelican Brief, Grisham’s second, was a fun, action-packed, easy read. Picking up The Chamber seemed like a no-brainer.
But after a number of chapters, I found the story plodding, the prose style uninteresting, and the chapter lengths interminable. Around this time Grisham became a household name and, like many other name brand authors before him, his stories began to suffer, so reading this new book was torturous. But you have to finish it, I told myself, you’re a reader. You’re an English teacher, for goodness’ sake. You can’t just stop. That’s sacrilege! So I finished it. And because I hated it, it took even longer to finish than other books. I lost roughly three weeks my life that I will never get back.
The other day, while in a particularly spiritual and philosophical mood, I picked up (or rather clicked up, as it was on an eReader) a copy of William Paul Young’s novel The Shack. I was fascinated first with its history. Originally self-published for family and friends, this novel caught fire through word of mouth and eventually ended up on The New York Times bestseller list, a fairytale ending we all wish for, right? Moreover, I was intrigued by its premise which involves a man who meets the personification of God in an old shack. I’m a sucker for spiritual stories that aren’t just religious tracts disguised as fiction. Third, I was certainly in the right frame of mind for such a story, as I was spending the evening in our church waiting for my two daughters as they rehearsed a youth ministry production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
But try as I might, I could not engage myself in the novel. In fact–sorry Mr. Young–unlike much of the nation, I thought it was pretty awful. I gave it three full tries, that night and on two other, separate occasions, but I could not get into the book. But in fairness, I want to to consider a couple of barriers that might have been mine. First of all, I might have been prejudiced by the stigma of self-publishing (and I am speaking as a self-published author).
Secondly, I was not aware of the part of the story that deals with the kidnap and murder of a young girl. As the father of two young daughters, the book could be written by Shakespeare and it’s just too disturbing for me to go there. To further complicate the issue, there was a period of time during the rehearsal where I wasn’t sure where my youngest daughter was because when I checked on her, a young chaperone said she wasn’t backstage (in fairness to the young chaperone, it was dark backstage and she had simply missed her). Nevertheless, those were a tense few moments.
I’m willing to admit that the combination of these elements could have hampered my appreciation of a novel whose prose style was dense, whose characters were cliché, and whose chapters seemed to lack a narrative or objective. About thirty pages in I realized that this book just wasn’t working for me, and I did what I would never have allowed myself to do in my pre-Grisham days.
I put it down.
A few days later, a friend of mine asked me to read her (as yet) unpublished novel. I was riveted from the first page. I loved the characters, the premise, the writing style, and the action. I loved the imagery and her “voice.” I finished in three days. I would have finished sooner, except that it she hadn’t completed it, and I had to hound her to get back to the keyboard and send me the final chapters, even upon her return from vacation.
I’m still not sure why some books capture our imagination and some don’t. But I have learned one very important lesson about reading: I’m getting old now. My time on this planet is finite. And this means that life is too short to read bad books.
What book made you feel as if the author was stealing parts of your life?