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.: April 2007 --> Another reader's manifesto

Another reader's manifesto

» Guy Dammann: Don't feel bad about abandoned books. His 3-step process for deciding on whether or not to read a book is similar to the "inspectional reading" outlined in the classic How to Read a Book.

From the reader comments, here is one of my favorites:

Squatting on my top shelf, 3 paperback volumes of the unabridged 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire', about 1500 pages each, the first volume creased on its spine about a fifth of the way in, the rest of volume and the other two spines immaculate. A message screamed out to the perceptive observer, 'Here is a man who likes to be seen buying impressive books but whose pygmy intellect cannot cope with any book that hasn't had a murder and a rooftop chase by page 100'.

I've been making an effort in the last few years to read more of the "murder and a rooftop chase" type of book. For a while I got mired in a swamp of non-fiction, much of which only held my interest for the first few chapters. I finished all of those books, but it sure would take a long time. Initially, I thought it was because my interest in the subject was actually at the "long-article" level, but now I've developed a new theory.

Much of the highly-touted non-fiction of the last few years simply starts stronger than it finishes. Writers submit a book proposal and then just don't have enough ideas to fill their word count with interesting and relevant material. They end up padding. These books (sometimes based on a wildly-popular magazine article) become less and less substantial as they progress. The author has enough interesting material for a much shorter book, or a series of long articles, but not enough for the amount of material he has been paid to produce.

It's not that I don't like non-fiction. You can look at my book lists from the last few years and find non-fiction that I rave about. These are books that delivered from start to finish. Anything that has a notation to the effect that "there are some good ideas here" or "a little thin" probably suffers from the padding problem.

It dawned on me one day that reading had become drudgery—but in my childhood, I was an incredibly voracious reader. Was the problem me, or the books?

I decided it was time to apply a different filter to at least half of the books I read. Not, "Does this sound like an interesting and/or important topic?" but "Does this sound fun to read?" Using the library has helped me in this, allowing me to explore without spending money, and (theoretically) making it easier to just chuck a book if it's not living up to the "fun" standard (though I still have trouble putting down a book without finishing it).

In that spirit, here are two of my favorite reading links: The Reader's Bill of Rights and Marylaine's Books Too Good to Put Down. (via wl)

 [ 04.04.07 ]


Don't blame the authors, blame the editors and publishers. Apparently, it has become a crime to write a short book, unless you're Elmore Leonard (whose motto is "edit out all the boring bits").

As a reader of some "genre fiction," I can attest to widespread bloat -- clearly, the authors have been told by their publishers their novels must be long enough to provide a requisite amount of heft. John Grisham novels, for one, could easily be cut in half, and would be better reads if they were.

The irony is that this has happened in a time when people are allegedly concerned about wasting natural resources. When I was young, in the early sixties, and started reading them, science fiction mass-market paperbacks were typically 200 pages max (and often far less).

The interesting question, to me, is has this trend been reader-driven (longer novels were selling better), corporation-driven (publishers figured out they could make more money per book if the books were fatter and therefore justified a higher markup), or editor-driven (longer novels mean more work available for editors)? Or a combination of one or more of the above.

I was thinking more of non-fiction when I wrote the post. The books I'm thinking of aren't particularly long, just too long for the actual number of ideas the authors seem to be able to generate.

With regard to fiction, I would think the success of the Harry Potter books would have influenced publishers.

I also think that many of the got this book deal because of my blog books fall into the "not enough material for the form" category. Often the one great idea is great, in website form, not stretched to 200 linear pages.

It also makes me sad that success is seen in terms of getting the book deal, not in the amazing and creative work on the internet in the first place.

I've tried a couple methods to stay a happy reader. I agree with using the library as much as possible. I save probably thousands of dollars every year, and a little deadline pressure always helps. About 6 months ago, I pretty much stopped trying to prioritize what to read next by interest or timeliness--I just line them all up by due date and read my way down the list. The ones I buy just get tossed into the queue.

I try to give every book at least 40-60 pages whether I like it or not. I guess meeting my "minimum quota" helps leave a clear conscience if I chuck one out.

Learning to read faster was a huge bonus for me (not just skimming, but really focusing at a higher rate). When you've got a book like, for example, The Long Tail, and you've seen the same graph 30 times, and you don't really need to *study the text*, then it's nice to be able to move into a higher gear and just finish it off.

Since I started writing so many mini-reviews, I've begun thinking more and more about how I'd write about what I'm reading. I've been finding pull-quotes, dog-earing interesting sections, thinking about things to Google, etc. I guess it's more of a hyperlinked process--looking for ways to take my book experience into the outside world.

As a reader, I am very impatient with books that don't grab my attention. My view is that I've already wasted my money buying the book, I don't want to waste my time (which is more precious!) on finishing it just for the sake of it.

As a novelist (two legal thrillers weighing in at just under 500 pages!), my own attitude as a reader alarms me. But then it's a good fear if it drives me to make sure my writing is page-turning - as thrillers are required to be! I've had difficulty writing more sedate, literary stories and non-fiction as I keep thinking I need to bring in the men with the guns to keep the action moving along...

But the Harry Potter books have drastically varied in length; only a few have been truly "long" compared to some of the stuff that's out there, so I'm not sure that they've been influential in the "longer books" arena. The influence on publishing for Harry Potter, I think, is the endless number of fantasy series books for "independent readers" (late elementary school) and "young adult" (mostly junior high) kids. Many are released with cover art that in some way references Harry Potter's US jacket design - the Septimus Heap books are a good example.

I just had the immense pleasure of reading a bunch of Diana Wynne Jones's Chrestomanci books; the most recent, "The Pinhoe Egg", has a cover that explicitly references the Potter books in both the use of typography and the style of illustration, and the other books have been relatively recently rereleased with similar covers. They are also available in omnibus editions from 2001 where the cover art is by Dan Craig, with castles and cats and a non-"magical" Roman font. Completely non-Potter. This seems relevant to me because this author's books are the ones specifically recommended by many other industry people as books to read either after or instead-of Harry Potter.

Finally, the other real effect that you see is in marketing - certain books that might have broad appeal to both older children and adults are, lately, marketed to both and shelved in both teen and adult areas in bookstores.

I suspect that the thing about longer books has to do with certain superstar authors being edited less and less, both because of their clout and because there is more work to do than there are editors to do it. This is OK when it's Pynchon and painful when it's Anne Rice or John Grisham.

As far as choosing when to or not to put down a book, I usually try to give a book 50 pages, at which point I know whether or not it's grabbing me. Some froth has grabbed me, some major classics haven't. Sometimes you need to put something aside for when you're more in the mood for it.

Yang-May has a point about books grabbing people - I mean, they tell people looking to break into the business that one of the first things an editor actually reading your manuscript will look for is how much the first sentence grabs people, starting with them. If you're in the slush pile, the person doing the first "no/maybe" decision probably has dozens of other manuscripts to look through, and in many cases they'll only read the first page. Your goal as a writer is to get them to page six or ten or however many it takes for them to put you in the "maybe" pile. I don't think there's any shame in chucking aside bad commercial fiction; the only thing that ever surprises me is that it got published in the first place.

I think Sarah is right w/r/t "my blog got me this book deal" books (sometimes it's "my site got me this deal," as seemingly with Jean Railla's "Get Crafty" and also the owners of any major online craft tutorial/pattern zine - Knitty, AntiCraft, etc). It seems like certain blogs that get book deals - I'm thinking Washingtonienne and that ilk - have only a handful of scandalous posts that almost seem like book-deal bait. They make a splash and close down after a few weeks, then develop the "story" sketched out in the blog after they get a book deal. I don't know if that's intentional - if they were actually only aiming for a book deal - or just a side-effect.



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