Guest Post: “But I Can’t Do That”: Re-Examining Our Rules for Reading by Karen A. Wyle

Today is another very special day! I am excited to host author Karen A. Wyle. I enjoyed her most recent release, Division, so much that I reached out to host her on Magic & Mayhem. She’s here today, sharing her thoughts on self-imposed reading customs.

One of my daughters had surgery not long ago. Knowing she would have weeks of limited activity, she decided to make the best of it and reread the Harry Potter series. It had been years since her last immersion in the books, and she found herself irritated or frustrated by passages that had not bothered her before (or not as much).

At one point, she was grumbling about having half of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to slog through before she could reach her favorite section (featuring “Dumbledore’s Army”). I timidly suggested: “How about skipping ahead? After all, you’ve read the book how many times before?”

My daughter’s spluttering outrage at my proposal came as no surprise. I used to have my own rules for reading — rules I never thought of doubting or reassessing until I was a good deal older than my daughter. I finished every book I started. I never peeked ahead. When I reread books (as I habitually did), I reread them entirely and in order.

I don’t know which book finally triggered the first rebellious impulse. I do remember feeling a combination of lightness and disorientation, like a boat loose from its moorings, when I actually decided to close the book I was no longer enjoying.

It’s easy enough to justify putting these rules aside. Life is short (and getting shorter, from my perspective). There are so many books out there. (And it’s so easy to get them, in this era of free and inexpensive ebooks!) I read for pleasure, or for knowledge, or for self-knowledge. If a book is no longer providing me with any of these benefits, why not go in search of one that will?

But why did I follow these rules in the first place, and why do so many others still treat them as unbreakable?

There’s respect for the author, and for all the work and talent the author invested in the book. In light of that impressive and intimidating commitment, how can we begrudge a few hours or days of our time? I expect we also tend to harbor an irrational fear that the author will Know — will somehow sniff out our cavalier rejection of what the author worked so hard to lay before us. That’s hardly likely, unless we take the trouble to publish a DNF (did not finish) review.

There’s the fear that we’re bailing too soon: that if we only kept reading for another few pages, the book would reel us in, and provide us with a moving or thought-provoking or entertaining experience that we’d have been sorry to miss.

For some of us, lack of commitment, the failure to finish what we’ve started, is a pattern that goes well beyond our reading habits. Discarding a book unfinished reminds us of skills never mastered, courses never completed, careers never actually begun.

Hmmmm. Leaving aside the superstitious fear of omniscient authors, these are good reasons to keep reading! Should I reconsider, repent, and resolve never again to discard a book after ten, twenty or fifty pages?

Well, no. I may, after all this analysis, try to give each book a bit more of a chance. But in the end, I’m going to trust myself. Most of the time, if a book and I are meant for each other, I think I’ll know. And if it isn’t meant to be, I’m going to let go, gracefully and without remorse. We’ll agree, the book and I, to see other people. We’ll both be happier that way.

P.S. I showed this column to my other daughter, who told me that she has quite a different reason for reading all books in order. When she reads fiction, she becomes thoroughly immersed in the story. If she were to skip about, the experience would lose some of the reality she cherishes — and she would feel strange exercising an ability denied to the characters.

Thanks for your thoughts, Karen. It’s only been within the last year that I have been able to abandon books. I even created a Goodreads shelf to give myself “permission” not to finish them. But it’s still tough to put one down.

What do you guys think? What kind of self-imposed customs do you have? When did you first allow yourself to stop reading a book–or do you slog through the entire thing cover-to-cover no matter what?

Come back on Monday for my review of Karen’s Division!