Saturday, March 8, 2014

“Did You Even Read It?”

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

--Sir Francis Bacon

When someone criticizes a book, someone else will usually fire back with “Well, did you even read it?” This is a valid point; however, the hard truth is, no one has the time to read every book ever written. As such, it does become necessary to evaluate a book to some degree before reading it. How do you go about this?

Readers rarely have to delve into a book blind these days with the multitude of reviews, rumors, synopses, excerpts, spoilers, author interviews, and other details out there. It is not that hard to find out information about a book before you attempt to read it, especially in the Internet age. You don’t have an excuse to be ignorant.

But, you've got to admit that those people who ask “Did you even read it?" have a point. If you judge a book without reading it, or have read only parts of it, you are at a disadvantage. You are making judgment calls from an uninformed (or less informed) standpoint. Even if you have read all the reviews, synopses, spoilers, excerpts and other information available, if you have not read the actual book, it's harder to take your opinion seriously.

But you can still have valid reasons for choosing not to read or finish a book. In that case, I think there is wisdom in the saying "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." Let me elaborate. I'm NOT saying don't take a stand for what you value. On the contrary. But wouldn't it be a better use of your energy to promote the good books instead of burning (literally and figuratively) the bad books?

Think about it. If you read a good book, talk about it. Tell your friends. SHOUT it to the rooftops. Spread the word. You've read the book, so you hopefully know what you're talking about. Therefore, people might listen. But what’s the use in ranting about a book you haven’t read? When you refuse to read a book, you don't know much, if anything, about it. That much is true, and trust me, the other side is always going to shoot back with that argument. And they're always going to be right.

And then there are those people who have read the book and still have reasons for disliking it. To which I say, learn from the experience and be brief. The "don't say anything" wisdom still applies here in that you're still better off talking about the good books instead of the bad ones. Should you really call attention to a book you don’t want people to read? Isn’t that counterproductive? Besides, if all you have to say about a book is to criticize it, then after a while, all it does is make you sound bitter, hurtful, and mean. So be brief, let it go, and move on.

Whether you've read a book or not, I think it is generally unwise, and ultimately ineffective, to single out a specific book as if it were wholly responsible for the breakdown of the arts and society. Because no matter how bad a book is perceived to be, it couldn't possibly be responsible for ALL the world's problems. A legitimately bad book is a symptom of a disease, but not the root of the problem.

For me, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” does NOT mean stay silent about problems and grievances, such as objectionable material in books and the literature we teach in schools. Over time I’ve learned that the true meaning behind this principle is that the more time you spend complaining about the bad is time you’ve neglected to spend talking about the good.

You don't like bad language? Fine. Say you don't like it. Not a fan of explicit sexual content or violence? OK. Speak up. But don't waste your breath on something you know little about, like the books you never finished. Instead let your positive choices and experiences do the talking, and let your objections be. Sometimes silence can speak volumes, and what you don't read will be an example in itself. Be clear about what your standards are, then make choices consistent with those standards. That's how you make your stand.

Keep in mind that books, like the people who write them, are not perfect. A book is bound to have both its good and its bad points. How do you navigate shelves full of imperfect books written by imperfect people? Well, I would say it's not that much different from navigating an imperfect world full of imperfect people. Reading books is like making friends.

I find it’s helpful to judge a book by its strengths first before you go pointing fingers at its weaknesses. Perhaps it’s not very well written. Perhaps it’s just plain boring. Perhaps it’s a little difficult to read. But ask yourself, “Is it worth my time?” Sometimes you can learn something valuable about books, stories, writing, and life from books you may not particularly admire, and sometimes that alone is motivation enough to finish a book. You may realize that there are aspects of a book that you do like, even if you didn’t like it overall. Take what good you can away from the experience.

There may be some unfortunate cases where a book shouldn’t be finished. I can forgive bad (i.e., poorly executed) writing. I cannot, however, forgive bad (i.e., malicious or degrading) content. Even well written books can be guilty of bad content. I stand by my original advice to stay informed. This, in turn, will lessen the chances of wasting time on unfinishable books. But sometimes, despite all the research, glowing reviews, and honest effort, a book isn’t worth finishing for objectionable reasons. Put the book down. Walk away. Even bad reading experiences teach you something. It will help you make better decisions in the future. Perhaps I’m treading on dangerous ground here; censorship is a whole other issue, subject to endless debate. But I do believe choosing books is, at its heart, a moral choice.

Search for the good. Promote the good. Speak briefly and clearly about the bad. I would also add, you need to train your mind to look for the good because if you don't, eventually your thinking will become distorted. Eventually the bad is all you see, and that’s an awful way to live. With people, if all you do is point out how you're better than them and how inferior they are, eventually you won't have any friends. So it is with books. A life without books is an empty life.

Look, I know I’m just talking about books here, and that what I choose to read next, in the scheme of things, seems rather trivial. But choice matters, and maybe all I’m trying to say is that the principle behind small decisions is the same as it is for big ones. And I know there are times when complaints and protest are valid, but if you let said complaints put you in a miserable mindset, eventually they will consume you. Don’t just point out the problem; search for, promote-and become-the solution.