Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

WHEN TO SAY WHEN: ON NOT FINISHING BOOKS

Posted: July 31, 2013 by mwerntz in Book Reviews, Myles

Over text message this weekend, I confessed that–in the face of staggering commendations–I just wasn’t getting into John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars . And so, I quit reading it.
I have no idea how it ends, but I can guess with reasonable certainty (no spoilers here).

It’s nobody’s fault here, and certainly not the author. As far as the characters went, I found them really charming, and as far as YA literature that deals with heavy material like death and dying, it was well done. And it’s not the fault of the other Hands: I trust their literary sensibilities and their artistic tastes. And it’s not my fault: I’ve slogged my way through more unreadable books than I can count, so I can genuinely say that I don’t like to quit a book. So: why quit the book? Why not plow through the last 130 pages and see where the rabbit hole goes? Why doom myself to the fate of the characters of the book and not know what happens to characters who speak well and whose lives are somewhat interesting? DID THE MOTHER MARRY A CON ARTIST????? THE QUESTIONS!!!!!

The short answer is two-fold. First, I didn’t connect with the characters. Yes, the dialogue was well-written, and yes, I felt empathy for the characters, but I genuinely didn’t care about them. It didn’t help that I was reading East of Eden at the same time, and couldn’t stop thinking about the unwritten fates of so many of Steinbeck’s masterpiece. For the record, I’m glad that sequels to books are not the norm–some characters deserve the gift of fading out beyond the reader’s gaze. But the characters in Fault in Our Stars, for me, were like watching a movie that I was marginally invested in, but could go one way or another with when it’s bedtime.

Secondly–and more broadly–I don’t feel guilt anymore about not finishing a book or a movie. There was a time in my life not so long ago that I hated not finishing a work, that not knowing the ending was like a open mosquito bite, burning away at my attention. But then, it dawned on me that the world is full of books and brimming with movies, books that I want to read more than once and movies that I know I’ll love. And it’s okay to spend time with those more than ones I don’t. As a scholar, I’ll submit myself to work that I don’t particularly think useful for the sake of being fair to an argument; it’s my job and, I think, the mark of charity–to be willing to listen to something that you disagree with and see it through under most circumstances. But when it comes to art, I’m okay with stopping halfway.

Does this mean that I think art is somehow worth being uncharitable to, that art doesn’t get the same pass as scholarly material? In a sense, yes, and I can’t yet defend that. But all I know is that while I may think Oliver O’Donovan’s The Ways of Judgment isn’t a good argument (but one I need to read), Rainn Wilson’s The Super was’t particularly good and I shut it off after fifteen minutes. And I’m okay with it, but can’t yet say why.

What are the books/movies you quit? Do you regret them?

The year was 1995. I’d just graduated from high school, and to bridge the summer gap, I was working at a swanky restaurant called Steak & Ale. I was a short timer – I knew that I’d be moving to Arkansas in a couple of months for college, but I needed something to do in the meantime. At Steak & Ale I was a busboy and, get this, a salad bar attendant. The salad bar job paid 50 cents an hour more than bussing. I was good at my job.

That summer was chocked full of expectation and hope for something new. I never liked high school, mostly because I wanted to fit in so badly that I never could decide who I actually was. That’s called going about it backwards. *Sigh*

Up to this point, I’d had exactly one girlfriend. She’d broken my heart a year or so before, and I hadn’t been able to convince anyone else to give me a shot (not that I actually asked, you understand). I’d given up on Katie Furlong – when you’re out of your league, you’re out of your league. But at Steak & Ale, I met Allison Semones. Allison (also entirely out of my league, of course) smoked. I mean, she was smoking hot, of course, but she actually smoked. This was a new thing for this church boy. We were friends and I made her the obligatory mix tape or three (I was really good at that). And then one day, she invited me over to her house. Now, before I continue here, you’ve got to understand something: I had absolutely no shot with this girl. None. And I knew it. But I didn’t care one measly bit. That night, we watched a movie and just generally hung out. But here’s what’s stuck fast in my memory: this time she’d made me a mix tape. I’ve still got it somewhere, I think. And while I couldn’t tell you the track listing, I’ll never forget one particular song from it.

After dark, we went outside and lay in the back of her pick-up and listened to the tape. She hit play, and I heard the voice of Emily Saliers or Amy Ray (I never knew which) telling a story about being a kid and buying a ring for a boy because “it seemed the thing to do,” followed by what’s still my favorite song of theirs, “Least Complicated.” That was my introduction to Indigo Girls. I left for college that fall and said goodbye to Allison, but Emily and Amy have never been able to shake me.

———————————–

Now, the year is 2013 and I was in Nashville to hear one of my heroes, Neil Gaiman, read from his new book. I met my friend Matt Conner just before show time and we ended up on the back row. That was just fine with me. Matt’s a good friend and one I don’t get to see very often. Neil was on his last signing tour ever.

I’d told myself (and anyone who would listen) that I didn’t care about an autograph. What I really wanted was a picture with Neil. Autographs hold no mystery or mystique for me. But a picture, one I can make my Facebook profile picture… now that I can truck with. I knew from talking to Kelly (our fourth hand around here) that it was going to be a late night if I waited in line to see Neil. I also knew, because he said it over and over, that these late nights of signings were killing Neil. He mentioned how he’d had to ice his arm lately just to dull the pain.

Matt and I drank up Neil’s droll, dry humor with divine smiles on our faces throughout. When the thunderstorm outside raged, Neil told us that he’d promised himself that if a thunderstorm happened during one of these shows, he’d read a special passage from the book – the one that happens during a storm. We were the only stop on the tour to get this passage. Every other city had heard a part from the beginning of the novel. We got a part from the middle, and it was deliciously scary.

Then, when we knew the evening was coming to a close, I realized that there had been a second chair on the stage the entire time. During his customary Q&A session, Neil called out a friend from backstage to help him out with something. We knew it was a musician, but until the last second, we were in the dark as to his identity. When Neil said that his friend Bela Fleck was going to accompany him on the banjo while he read from his new, new book, “Fortunately, the Milk,” the joint flipped out. We were a lucky city, Nashville. Nobody else got this part. Neil was wry and wonderful. Bela was plinky and light. It was magical.

Then the show was over. And I had a decision to make. I could stay to see Neil. Matt said he’d hang with me, but I knew that it was going to be a late night. I still had a two and a half hour drive home, too. Matt said I could crash with him and then drive home the next morning. And I’d get my picture with Neil!

But then I thought about it. I thought about Neil’s arm hurting. I though about how little I get to see Matt. I thought about how good a cup of coffee sounded right then. So I made my decision. I’d spare Neil a few seconds of time, and instead, I’d live for the present, not for a picture.

Matt and I went out for pizza and we caught up on years of a neglected friendship. We talked about books we were reading and records we loved. We planned what show we’d see together next. It was lovely. I’d almost missed it for a picture.

I got to my car at about 11:00 and headed home. It’s a lonely drive from Nashville to Knoxville at night. It’s dark. Very dark. And it was rainy. I hadn’t brought any music with me – I left in such a hurry that I plum forgot. So I scanned the FM dial for public radio. Maybe I’d get lucky. And boy howdy, did I.

That night, Nashville’s public radio station was channeling CBC’s Q with Jian Ghomeshi, a sort of Canadian Fresh Air. And after a delightful interview with Rick Moranis, Jian played his interview with the Indigo Girls and I was cast into the vivacity and breadth of their catalogue. Emily and Amy were redolent with the light of social change and their love and admiration for each other. They made me forget how lovely that road can be.

And it struck me again. If I’d stayed to get that picture with Neil, I’d have missed this moment. This intimate moment of crackly radio that led me back home through the gloomy night.

What’s a picture? What’s a picture of me with an author but a posed memory? Instead of hours of waiting for thirty seconds with my hero, I got an hour or two with my friend. Instead of being able to change my twitter avatar (for what?), I got to participate in a march through the night with two beautiful women. Instead of a fake memory, I got two real ones.

———————————–

I have a picture somewhere of that night in Allison’s pick up. I shot it on black and white film and it’s exposed poorly. You can see her face, but that’s about all. I’ve no idea where it is – probably in a box somewhere in the attic. But what I remember – what’s indelible – is hearing that song in the night. The Indigo Girls stayed long after Allison was gone. And go figure, there they were again, on another dark night, to sing me home.

Turns out I made the right decision. Sometimes the hardest things to learn are the least complicated.