Sunday, December 17, 2006

51. So Many Books, So Little Time

by Sara Nelson

Now, you know I’m fan of the semi-metatextual books about books written by people who love books genre, so when I saw Sara Nelson’s So Many Books, So Little Time sitting there at the used bookstore I snatched it up. Subtitled, “A Year of Passionate Reading,” the book follows Nelson’s attempts to read one book a week for an entire year. The task sounded familiar enough, so how could I go wrong?

To be honest, I don’t think I went wrong at all. Nelson is the one who’s wrong in so many ways that I almost stopped reading the book, but finished because I kind of loved how bad it was. There are many reasons why I found the book to be pitiful, but I was most taken aback by the tone Nelson uses to address her fellow readers. It’s one of a group dynamic, as if all of us readers are all reading for the same reasons, reading the same types of things, and up against the same reading obstacles (time, interest, friends who think we’re crazy for reading). She approaches the topic with a “we’re all in this together” attitude that doesn’t apply here. While many of us booklovers may experience similar revelations or obstructions with our reading, I don’t want to read some treatise proclaiming “we do this” or “we do that”. I don’t need to be told what I do or why I do it; that’s not why I read about readers. I read about them because the most honest authors of such books do nothing more than chart their own behaviors and search them for meaning. They are about the individual, not the group, and in that way it’s fun to explore your own similarities or dissimilarities to the author’s quirks. It’s not about what “we” as readers do, but what you or I as distinct individuals do with our reading.

However, Nelson’s approach that all “us readers” think alike is surprising given that she spends a significant amount of time trying to convince us that she was not a quiet, anti-social girl who found solace in books and grew up to be a quiet, bookish woman (apparently, that’s what the rest of us are). “I don’t have bittersweet memories of sitting by the window devouring Little House on the Prairie as other kids whooped it up on the playground. I never once, as an adolescent, chose a fictional Heathcliff over my personal real-life version… Nobody who knows me would ever confuse me with Marian the Librarian (‘Why, Miss Nelson, when you take off your glasses, you’re actually pretty!’) or suggest I left a single social stone unturned in my pursuit of literature.” Well, you know what? I wasn’t a weirdo outcast either, but I still love reading. But if you were a weirdo outcast or still are a weirdo outcast and turn to reading in lieu of social activity, that should be okay, too. While Nelson may be trying to convince non-readers that readers are people too (not that non-readers would really be the market audience for a book about books, but that’s another issue), her pages-long effort to distance herself from the frigid, anti-social reader stereotype is just a bit too much in the way of protest.

Here’s an example of what I mean when I say that Nelson believes all readers are alike (except that she’s the only one who’s ever had a social life): “For me – as, I believe, for a lot of readers – when a book gets overhyped, we get mad. We’re a funny, cliquish group, we book people, and sometimes we resist liking – or even resist opening – the very thing everybody tells us we’re supposed to like.” Which, okay, that may be true on one level, but isn’t that true of many things? Isn’t that one of the reasons one of the boys I dated in college thought he was superior to me, because he listened to music no one’s ever heard of and I listened (and still listen) to – gasp! – pop music? Books get overhyped for many different reasons, but the exposure doesn’t always elicit the same effect. I don’t believe the exalted stance many put toward Midnight’s Children equals the madness over The DaVinci Code. It’s unfair and presumptuous for Nelson to state that all readers shy away from any book that’s received a modicum of press.

Another passage I must point out because it’s so ridiculous: “Explaining the moment of connection between a reader and a book to someone who’s never experienced it is like trying to describe sex to a virgin.” I’m just going to come out and say, definitively, no, it is not. For one thing, I hate it when people try to impart a sexual nature on a nonsexual topic just to make it more stimulating. (How long did we have those horrible “organic experience” Herbal Essences commercials? Like, six years?) But moreover, reading and sex are not comparable activities or feelings. One can safely assume that a virgin will one day have sex and aspires to the status of non-virgin. Not so with non-readers. They don’t think about the day they’ll start reading, wondering which book it’ll be or if the one they’re reading now will finally be the one to take them all the way. Most non-readers are perfectly happy to go their entire lives not reading, so while a virgin may not fully comprehend a description of sex, non-readers probably don’t care to hear about books at all. To sum up: This is a stupid and unnecessary comparison.

I could list many more passages where I shook my head in annoyance, but I’ll just leave this with a simple plea to the author in the event she’s contemplating further books about her reading exploits. Ms. Nelson, Sara – as a reader, and I don’t presume to speak for the group but from my discussions with other readers I believe many would be in agreement with me, don’t try to me why I read or what I gain from it. Tell me why you do and what it means to you. And if you can’t do that, perhaps you should limit your activities to reading and not writing about it.

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