The Trials and Tribulations of a Reluctantly Reluctant Reader

I wrote a post about a month ago in response to a few comments I received in a couple of book reviews I got on the Twisted book, and I just reread yesterday what I had written in the post. After a little time away, sometimes you see things you missed that maybe bring up points you hadn’t originally planned on making.

The post itself was supposed to be about how people were perceiving the book and how my implied words and illustrations weren’t being taken at face value. As if that wasn’t my intention from the start, but let’s not go there right now.

When I reread the original post, I saw a few lines in there that I had written that weren’t exactly what I was aiming for in hindsight. Here they are:

First, my mentor. Dr. Michael A. Arnzen taught me everything I know about writing fiction. He’s a good teacher, and from what I’ve heard, a good writer as well. Why don’t I know he’s a good writer? Well, because he writes horror, and I really don’t like to read horror. I’ve tried reading his stuff, but it’s not what floats my blood cells, if you know what I mean. But you know what? He’s won enough Bram Stoker Awards to shut up anybody who thinks the genre is all about teen gore movies. Just do a search for “Arnzen” on this page, and you’ll see what I mean.

That paragraph made me think about something that has come up a few times since the book was released. I was going to post another comment on that post, but quickly realized I had a bigger point than I could put in the space of a comment. (And as an aside, I actually find Dr. A’s flash fiction and poetry very entertaining. It’s still classified as horror, I understand, but my mind doesn’t wander off when it’s in smaller doses.) The point I was trying to make was that just because I don’t like to read something doesn’t mean it isn’t good.

That’s the conundrum of a reluctant reader.

Let me try to explain. I’m a picky eater. Always have been. I think of mushrooms as fungus, and generally I avoid them when I’m choosing from a menu. But as a vegetarian, I’ve found that a whole lot of people think that being a vegetarian must mean you really, really love portobellos because that’s the vegetarian choice in many restaurants. Apparantly, portobellos are considered very delicious. They’re just not delicious to me.

I’ve also always been a picky reader. I don’t like it, and I try hard to get as much variety in my reading diet as I can, but I’ve found there are some things I have trouble with. And it’s not always everything by a certain writer, and it’s not always a certain genre, and just because the vast majority of readers and critics agree it’s a classic doesn’t mean I won’t have trouble with it.

Just to give you an idea. Here are a few of the books that I’ve tried to read that I haven’t been able to finish (but am still trying):

A Farewell to Arms by Earnest Hemingway
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Dracula by Bram Stoker
The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft (I understand it’s only a short story, but that doesn’t seem to be making it any easier for me.)

Here are a few books that I wanted to like but struggled violently to get through:

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Un Lun Dun by China Mieville
James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl (illustrated by Lane Smith)

Here are a few books that I pushed myself to finish but won’t be reading the rest of the series (which is terribly sad for me because I love collecting entire series of things):

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket
The Spiderwick Chronicles: The Field Guide by Holly Black
Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

And then here are a few books that I read and will likely read again:

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (illustrated by Dave McKean)
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos (which I wrote about on my other blog here)
The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

See what I mean? There’s no rhyme or reason. Those top books are considered classics; the portobellos of the literary world. I wish I could explain how a reluctant reader thinks, but I don’t understand it myself. Some things stick and some things don’t. Some books keep my attention, and some books make my mind wander, and it really doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of the writing or illustrations.

  • I picked up Lemony Snicket, Spiderwick, James and the Giant Peach and The Graveyard Book because of the illustrations.
  • I kept with Raw Shark and Extremely Loud partly because of the graphics that were added throughout.
  • I had trouble with The Hobbit and Hitchhiker partly because of the odd names and words that I struggled to keep straight.
  • I kept with The Graveyard Book and Slaughterhouse-Five partly because of Gaiman’s and Vonnegut’s turn of a phrase.
  • But Vonnegut’s great phrase turning didn’t help when I forced myself to finish Titan.

There are a couple of things I would like people to know—and when I say “people” I mean readers who devour books. Those people I would so like to be like. I think something that I do understand that I would like other people to understand is that I don’t like that I can’t stay focused. I don’t like that I won’t be reading the second book in the Harry Potter series. I don’t like that I don’t like portobello mushrooms. Because if I could stay focused and read the rest of the series and eat the mushrooms, I would fit in so much easier socially. I could be part of the discussion. But I know what a struggle it is to make myself sit and read the same sentence over and over and over and still not hear what it’s saying. I decided a long time ago to stop putting myself through it.

I also want to point out that just because I’m not reading it doesn’t mean that I don’t think it’s good. I’m absolutely sure that it is. It’s just not flashing my neurons the way it’s supposed to, the way it does all those people who can devour a book in one sitting. I’ve never, in my entire life, been able to stay focused long enough to devour a book (longer than a picture book) in one sitting. And it really doesn’t have anything to do with the book. I still haven’t figured out why I like the things I do or not like the things I don’t. But if I ever do, it will make it a lot easier when I shop for books.

I know this probably hasn’t shed much light on the mind of a reluctant reader, and the only advice I have for the parents and teachers and librarians out there who are dealing with one (or many) is to not give up. Don’t stop trying. There’s a Graveyard Book out there for yours; you just have to find it. Dig it up. It took me 45 years to find mine.