Obligations

Starting to read a book is like signing a contract. At least for those books we select for ourselves, as opposed those assigned us by others; that is, the books we want to read versus the ones we “should,” “ought” or are required to read. There’s probably no contract involved for magazines or newspapers.

Immediately, one can see, this is a fraught proposition. It’s impossible to know what one wants to read before beginning the reading. As with so many difficult things, we’ll leave that to the side.

Back to the contract.

Book readers agree to read the carefully crafted prose the author has prepared. Implicitly, the author has already agreed to write (and, sometimes, research) prose intended to engage the reader in one way or another.

Often, maybe usually, the engagement experience is pleasurable, intellectually stimulating, and entertaining – and, when we’re lucky, sometimes all three. Occasionally, it is frustrating and often the frustration is a function of the reader’s own inabilities: inadequate background, vocabulary, foreign subject matter, etc.

But every now and again, the reader gains no traction from the text. Regardless of the reason, and without casting blame in any direction, there’s simply no magnetism.

What to do?

As an undergraduate, one must muddle through. Forcing oneself to plow through seemingly impenetrable text in the (dim) hope that enough will be absorbed so as to perform passably on a test.

As a graduate student, excuses for incomprehension evaporate in the wake of such tweedy aspirations as membership in the “public intellectual” club. While club entry requirements are as vague, ambiguous and subjective as the tests undergraduates once complained about, the club’s merit and significance is no longer questioned. Even when it should be.

There is a social-psychological theory, of course, that explains all of this. Cognitive dissonance.

But, at a certain point, I believe the Book Reading Contract is void. Or at least no longer applicable. The “point” is when one reaches a certain age – and this is where the wiggle-room occurs – one should no longer feel compelled to complete reading a book simply because one has cracked it open.

Unsurprisingly, I believe this because I’ve reached that point.

But, in fairness – as much to reader as to the author – a new contract specifies that one must give the book a “chance.” For me, I’ve decided that’s 50 or 60 pages. Not counting images and illustrations. If the author can’t “hook” me in that space, you’re going to lose me as a reader. Contract or no.

A recent, unpleasant experience serves as a reminder for this rule.

The book arrived and its title, subtitle and promo blurb all suggested it was on a subject of interest. Great.

The book’s format (a little oversized) and cover illustration were enticing, maybe even magnetic. Terrific.

Its title was intriguing. Even better still!

And the text was awful. The author spent most of the text seeking to impress readers with riddles she refused to solve, never mind offer hints for solutions. Engaging in debates (with who?) to which the only conclusion to be drawn was about the author’s profound intellect.

And all with only the skimpiest imaginable reference to the ostensible subject matter as implied by the book’s title, cover art and the blurbs.

Sixty pages later, done.

And now it’s in the pile of books destined for the used book dealer. An object with a retail price in excess of $40 that will generate a dollar, maybe two, in return.

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