Friday, July 22, 2011

It's difficult to keep reading

At the DGLM blog, Jim McCarthy asked if anyone has thrown a book after reading it. The post elicited quite a number of responses. Not surprising, since most of the readers of that blog are likely people passionate about books.

Thinking about readers being frustrated enough to want to throw a book makes me wonder about the reasons. I usually stop reading when I find the stories boring or the writing intentionally coy or pretentious, incoherent, or otherwise not engaging. But the most recent book I wanted to stop reading was extremely well-written by an author whose work I enjoy very much.

When I started Gary Schmidt's Okay For Now, I almost couldn't finish it. Not because I disliked the writing or the story but because what was happening to the protagonist was difficult to read about.

[minor spoiler alert}

This kid, Doug, has a father who's uncaring and cruel. His older brothers take after his father, and his mother stands aside, helpless. As an adult, a parent, and a teacher, I was deeply affected by the ordeals of this young man. But knowing that most juvenile fiction is essentially hopeful and contains ideas of redemption and change, I read on. And by the end, the fate of the protagonist isn't as bleak as the beginning suggests. The solutions are satisfying, though some of it rather rosy, but I was glad it ended the way it did.

I just started another book that I am tempted to stop. I decided to read Paolo Giordano's The Solitude of Prime Numbers because of the title. (Don't tell me you don't pick
up books for quirky reasons! Why people read what they read: an interesting topic to explore and one for a future blog post.)

I have only read 5 or 6 chapters of this book and I am again so disturbed by what's happening to the protagonists, both young people, that I don't feel like reading on. The ugliness within human nature
that the events in this book touches on is disturbing. I am not disgusted so much as overwhelmed by the darkness that is possible in this world.

Maybe I'm a light weight when it comes to confronting the dark and the horrid. Maybe there's enough sadness in the real world that I don't have the energy to take much more in the fictional world. Maybe I don't have the gumption to read about young people affected by depravity.

But why is it that I have no trouble reading other books in which people face evil? Katniss's fate in Hunger Games is worse than bleak. Several people attempt suicide in A Long Way Down. The narrator in The Lovely Bones is dead. I had no trouble reading any of it.

So I don't know. Your thoughts?

Do you have books you can't read? I know people who won't read books in which children are tortured. Many have a limit for the degree of violence or gore. What are the books that are difficult for you to read?

Edited to add: I just remember another book, Room, in which the small child has to face an unimaginable life. I liked the book and had no trouble reading, even though I was immersed in his world and felt the horror of his life but didn't stop reading. So what is it?


Laurel Garver said...

I don't do extreme violence and gore. Torture especially I just can't handle. I'll never pick up anything in the horror genre.

Not long ago, Verionica Roth (author of Divergent) blogged that writers need "thin skin"--meaning we need to maintain some emotional sensitivity to write well. I hope never to be innured to violence. It is abhorrent and I hope never, ever to become so jaded I just shrug at it, or worse, find it somehow "cool."

Yat-Yee said...

I don't have a strong stomach for extreme violence either. And thanks for sharing Veronica Roth's view about writers needing to keep thin skins. It's something I've never thought about. Good point.

storyqueen said...

I've never thrown a book...but i have stopped reading. I think it happend when i completely lose hope for either the characters in a book or the book itself.

If bad things happen, but I trust the author that the events are not gratuitous and put there just to creep me out, then I'll continue. (And yes, I sometimes take a sneakpeak to the end if I feel like I am losing all hope).

Time is precious. I don't need every book to make me feel all sunshiney, but I do hope to get something out of a book besides a bad feeling about life in general. If that's the way the books is going, I put it down.

Great post!


Domey Malasarn said...

This is an interesting topic. Thanks for writing about it Yat-Yee, and thanks to the commentors. I sometimes write dark stuff. It's a subject matter I think about a lot because it represents, to me, the limits of conflict, often internal. As I try to understand the world, it's the people who do dark things that are the most mysterious to me.

Yat-Yee, I wonder if the thing that makes some dark matter easier to read versus other types is tone. This is just my own guess, but I think maybe if the writer is sympathetic to the characters who cause violence it makes for more manageable reading. I haven't read any of your examples, so I can't say for sure.

Yat-Yee said...

Shelley: but I do hope to get something out of a book besides a bad feeling about life in general. feel that way too. Sometimes I wish I could handle more because I feel like I may be missing out but there really is a limit to how much bad a person can handle.

Domey: Thanks for chiming in from the pov of a writer. Exploring something that is mysterious is definitely why writers write, and bad people doing bad things is definitely mysterious. So I understand your point, one that I haven't thought of.

In terms of darkness, where would you put Bread? Certainly it's dark but I never felt like I had to stop.

As for tone and sympathy for the people doing/going through bad stuff, I'll have to think about that. In Prime Numbers, I think the author is sympathetic to the people, yet reading about the things they do to one another and to themselves made me feel bad.

Have to keep an eye open for more clues to this question.

Domey Malasarn said...

Yeah, I thought what I said about tone was probably just coming from my ignorance. I actually have read a ton of dark books, so I don't know how dark they actually get. To me, Bread was dark, but the few people who have read it have all said similar things to what you're saying. It's not THAT dark. I guess that's what got me into thinking about tone and sympathy. Why do you think Bread wasn't as difficult to read as these other books? You can be honest.

Yat-Yee said...

Well, let me try to remember. I think it wasn't too difficult to read even though the topic is horrifying because of the way you wrote it. It was matter of fact. There were no fancy tricks to make me feel icky or anything. You were just starting events as they happened and sharing thoughts in a slightly distant manner. So I think for me it's the distance that you've provided in your writing that protects the reader from being the people.

Does that make sense? What do your other readers who don't find it too dark say?

Laoch of Chicago said...

I sometimes find that if I am not liking a book I will put it aside, often for years and finally read it later. Sometimes I will find the book much more engaging then and I can only conclude that I was not ready for it yet.

Yat-Yee said...

Laoch: It is true that being ready for a book accounts for a large percentage of how a book is enjoyed. I see it most drastically in my 10-year old.

Domey Malasarn said...

Thanks for discussing it, Yat-Yee. This does make sense. I think as I was writing it, I felt like the characters had to distance themselves from the subject matter to be able to get through it.

I also agree with what Loach said!

scott g.f.bailey said...

Louis de Bernieres in Birds Without Wings gets to some pretty gruesome and skin-crawl-inducing stuff when he writes about the Gallipoli campaign of WW II. He gets you there gradually and while I wanted him to stop, I never once considered putting the book aside. Some writer or other once said "There's no such thing as too far, only too soon." I think I agree with that.

I will say that I've stopped watching films that were nothing but gratuitous violence. I don't know if I've read a book that was nothing but gratuitous violence, though. Probably there are, and I consciously avoid stuff like true crime and thrillers.

Tara Maya said...

I am more sensitive to tone than to violence itself. I can take any amount of torture, warfare and gore in an essentially hopeful book, with likable characters. But if the narrator is unpleasant or if the existential tone of the book is bleak, I can't even handle minor acts of cruelty.

For instance, I remember starting some book about the meaninglessness of life, in which every single character was a selfish jerk. By the time I reached the chapter where a character neglected a dog, letting go hungry when he was supposed to be giving it water and food when the owner was gone, I thought, "I can't spend one more minute with these people," and closed the book forever.

Yat-Yee said...

Scott: no such thing as too far, only too soon. Totally not something that has crossed my mind. Right now, I still think that you can go too far, although I'm not sure that if I get there more gradually, it won't be too far anymore. Definitely something that I'll be swirling around in my mind for a while.

Yat-Yee said...

Tara Maya: I agree with you. Total and complete bleakness is not something I can handle very well at all.

C. N. Nevets said...

@Domey - Bread is only dark because of discomfort and our feeling like some of the characters might be misguided. As story, though, it's a story of hope and striving, even if misguided or misfired.

Domey Malasarn said...

Nevets, What you describe was my original intent with Bread. I personally think I didn't quite succeed, but I find it hopeful that you picked up on it!