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Handling Books that Disappoint

Early in my formal education, shortly after I had learned to enjoy reading, I somewhere picked up the habit (I thought it was an irrevocable law) of reading every book I chose from cover to cover, word for word, no matter how much I disliked it.

That unfortunate habit led to my spending hours and hours of unprofitable slogging through uninteresting and even bad writing.

Years later, long after I had completed graduate school, I took a one-on-one post-graduate course under a professor who gave me a multipage list of books he recommended for the subject of the course. He indicated ten titles that were required reading for the course and instructed me to choose ten others to read in addition to those he required. When I only half-jokingly remarked that I didn't think I had time to read so much in such a short time, especially while working full time, he smiled slyly and said, "Don't read; skim."

As the class progressed, I was forced by lack of time to adopt his advice. It wasn't easy. No matter how much I might have enjoyed a book, I found that I had to skim if I was to be prepared for our next one-on-one session with the required paper written coherently and myself able to discuss the books intelligently. I didn't like that practice, but necessity forced it on me.

Through that experience, I learned not only to skim books under the pressures of competing responsibilities and limited time but also not to waste my valuable, scarce time laboring through books that don't meet my expectations or needs.

An opportunity to put that lesson into practice again occurred earlier this week. I had checked out from our local library a biography of legendary Scribner's editor Max Perkins. I thought it might hold for me some practical lessons on writing and editing. Less than 100 pages into the 450-plus-page tome, I concluded that laboring through it was an unproductive waste of my time.

The author hadn't fulfilled to my satisfaction his implicit promise to his readers: to present a book about Perkins's life and work. Rather, he had devoted more time and space discussing the lives and works of the writers with whom he worked (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ring Lardner, Ernest Hemingway, etc.) than with Perkins's biography. I didn't want to learn about those people at that moment or from that book. I wanted to learn about Max Perkins.

I stopped reading and turned my attention to more profitable use of my time and energy. That act took great self-examination and a tough decision that went contrary to my young-reader habit of finishing what I start, especially the reading of a book.

At my age, time is becoming increasingly more valuable to me. I can't afford to waste it on any book that does not satisfy or fill the needs or goals I have.

As I reflect on this experience, I pray that my own writing will be such that no reader has to make a similar decision about my work! And I remind myself, "Writer, deliver what you promise!"

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