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Monday, January 22, 2007

Theory #35: Readerly Theories: In Praise of Mediocre Books

Yay! I remembered Smart Bitches Day! And it's only been a month since the last time I remembered.

A friend once asked me why I bother reading mediocre books--why I don't just stop reading when it becomes obvious that the book just isn't going to do it for me, that it's not a great book, or even a very good one. I think the answer I gave her had something to do with me being stubborn, which is true, but there's more to it than that.

I may also have said something about the contrast making the really wonderful books shine that much brighter, and that's true, too. But there's still something else.

I need mediocre books. I'm talking about books that I rate between 2 and 4 stars. The ones that won't end up on my keeper shelves, and whose authors don't make it onto my must-buy list. (Although there are a few authors whose books regularly get 4 stars from me that are on that list.) These are the books that are pleasant reads, but don't leave me breathlessly in awe of the author's talent, or convinced (for a minute or two) that I don't need to read anything ever again because I've just read The Ultimate Book.

If I read too many really good books in a row, I start feeling like my head's going to explode. A really good book not only gives more to the reader; it requires more from her as well, mentally and emotionally. A really good book makes you think and feel, and if it's good enough, it's exhausting to read. I need some ordinary books in between so I can catch my breath.

In fact, I'm getting to the exploding-head point now. Of the 17 books and novellas I've read since the one I wrote about yesterday, 13 were 4.5-star or 5-star reads, and 2 were 4-star. Only 2 were truly mediocre, and those were both novellas. I find myself feeling out of sorts, needing to read something that's not challenging, something that won't make me feel bad about maybe skimming here and there or just going with the flow instead of reading with my whole brain engaged.

Sure, I complain about them. I point out what I don't like about the mediocre books, and why I find them mediocre, but the truth is, I'm a happier reader when I have a good mix of really good books and not-so-good books.

Part of it is that I read the way other people watch TV. I read while I'm eating breakfast or lunch (on weekdays, that is, when I'm by myself). I read when I'm taking a break. I read before going to bed. I read instead of watching TV. Granted that there is some good TV out there, I'd guess that most people who watch two or three hours of TV a day do not spend it all watching mentally challenging shows. They throw in a sitcom here, a reality show there, and watch to relax. It's the same for me with reading.

Another part of it is that I learn a lot more from a book with flaws than from one that's perfect, which makes me appreciate the really good books even more. It's one thing to know that, say, too much backstory is A Bad Thing, but it really sinks in when I read a book that's been attacked by the Backstory Fairy to the point where I can't see the plot anymore. And that makes me realize what a treat it is when an author is able to slide that backstory in without interrupting the story.

And the last part is that I just love books, period. Even the not-so-great ones. I'm aware of how much time, effort, and emotion goes into writing a book, and I have great respect for those who do so. Authors are my rock stars. It's rare that I can't find anything to like in a book--thus the dearth of 1-star ratings (only 3 in two years, and 2 of those were novellas).

So to all the authors who've written anything I've read, whether I loved it or not: Thank-you!


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That really ties in to what I wrote. I really love a book heavy on prose, but I certainly can't read one after the other after the other. Head would blow up. I have to decompress with lighter fare! They balance out in my head, even if the books themselves are not so balanced. Nice to meet you, Darle :)
Darla - This is very well "thoughts it out" written post here :) Well done!
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