Some time last month, I realized that over the past two or three years, I had become a compulsive Did Not Finisher: a loathsome, dreaded heathen who frequently begins reading books but soon loses interest, forgets the book entirely, and moves on to playing Words With Friends instead. Become a DNFer, something the Puddin’ of My Youth would have despised with a scorn reserved for the puddles of pudding-like ranch dressing that have become the real driving force behind American civilization, was not an immediate process, but rather the slow evolution of a man in his forties with little time for reading and an even narrower view of what was worth my precious, gold-tinted minutes.
I told myself everything was fine. That I was just getting pickier as my understanding of characterization and plotting grew from novice to journeyman. That if I couldn’t remember how far into a book I was at the end of the night and wasn’t sure what happened when I left off, it was the author’s fault for not grabbing my attention and clinging to it like capering monkey at the zoo with a handful of rotting fruit and a bad attitude!
Deep down, though, I knew that explanation was bogus. It assumed things about my relationship with the craft of writing that I’m decades away from being prepared to accept. Some of the books I was starting but not finishing were either highly recommended by people whose taste I trust more than I trust my own ability to pick out matching socks, or were written by authors I’ve read, enjoyed, and admiration for years. I mean, I know critics have been whining about Stephen King’s books for most of my life, but I’ve been digging them for most of that same time. So when I realized I’d gotten too bored to read past the third chapter of The Shining, I figured it might be worth considering that perhaps the problem at hand wasn’t just the Hindenburg of my writer’s ego.
And here’s where the our story veers into happy coincidence. As luck would have it, something I needed to read for research into ProjectBathrobe is not now and apparently never has been available electronically. I was flummoxed by the realization, even though it makes a ton of sense to me in hindsight. At the time, though, it meant I would have to…gasp!…journey physically to an actual bookstore to buy a book! In the real world! Where you can run into other people! Where it smells of rotten fishes and one could trip and fall into alligator-ridden sewers!
Of course, as it turns out, the world isn’t as smelly as I remember it. Or fraught with alligator-related dangers. At least, the book stores aren’t. Books can be expensive, though, boy howdy, especially the hardcovery ones, which I suppose I knew but had forgotten after years of ordering my (partially read) novels to delivered by magic stream of electron. Deciding that I wasn’t sure I wanted to purchase a pricey book that I needed mostly for research purposes, I picked it up at the library as if it was 1978 again, Mountain Dew was still advertising about unsupervised kids riding rope-swings into ponds, and my tube socks were colorfully striped with some version of red, white, and/or blue and hoisted up to the cusp of my knees!
Then…the magic happened: I read the damned book. All the way through, cover-to-satisfying-cover, in what basically amounted to two sittings. It was a glorious*.
I hadn’t burned through a book like that in, literally, years. Feeling like a kid again, I went back to my library and got the very next book by that same author. Or, well, technically, I reserved it via the library’s website and then picked it up later that week. These aren’t primordial times, after all. I then proceeded to burn through that book, too.
It was like I suddenly remembered how to ride a bike again, except with a book, while sedentary at home, while ignoring my tablet buzzing notifications at me.
Giddy about my new seemingly new-recovered ability to pick up any book that caught my eye and read more than 50 pages, I had an epiphany: maybe it wasn’t my newly-minted snotty inner critic that was keeping me from finishing books, but rather the experience that I was struggling with. Being every the scientist, I decided to try a small experiment. I’d go a month or six weeks or so reading only actual, physical books, and at the end we’d tally up the scores.
I’m content to say that I’ve reached the end now, and the score seems pretty conclusive to me: I’ve averaged a book a week over the last six weeks, and haven’t DNF’d a single one of them. More than that, I’ve even finished books I started electronically but then petered out on like a kid’s birthday balloon the Wednesday after the big party.
The more I think about it, the more I think I understand the why of it, too. Before you say anything, yes, I understand that lots of people have been sneering their sneery sneers at e-books for years, looking down upon them like the landed aristocracy cursing the nouveau riche in the early 20th century. “Real books”, they would say, “have weight. Presence. You can feel the gilted edges of their pages with your finger sticks and smell their tomey goodness in your nostril passage parts. Real books are real, and shall always be superior, may God save the Kings of the Firestone Nebula!”
Well, okay, so maybe nobody every said that specifically. Because, I mean, who would talk like that besides alien visitors lacking any real concept of empathy and having only a passing understand of the English language. But that sentiment has been there since digital books first began gaining popularity several years ago.
Believe me, I know. I have such people in my family.
That is, the anti e-book set of people, not the alien visitor people. Or even the landed aristocracy people, for that matter.
Point is, for me, that’s certainly not the why of things here. Because I’ve always been a fan of e-books. They are convenient and generally pretty affordable and I can impulse buy ‘em quicker than you could say, “ShamWow!” And for travel? Believe me, carrying 10 books on a Kindle is a boatload easier than lugging around the mountain of paperbacks I had the last time I went on a week-long trip to Jamaica.
But doing this little book experiment made me realize there’s a quiet, analytically side of me, a layer of my subconscious that notices how far into the meat of a book my bookmark is currently sitting. A sneaky, persistent phantom that takes note of my current book sitting on the counter in the kitchen or the desk beside me, waiting, calling to be picked up. I suspect it’s the same shadow of my personality that compels me to finish video game quests once I’ve accepted them, regardless of whether or not they’re necessary for the main game story.
I’m a completionist by nature, see, which drives me to finish games and books, and, lucky for me, is probably the driving force that’s keeps me on track to finish a novel, especially when I’m knee-deep in the confounding mire of the mid-draft, and nothing makes sense and all is darkness and black licorice and hope is lost.
For years now, apparently, I’ve been tricking that subconscious phantom by reading from my tablet. Because it couldn’t gauge how far into a book I was based on Kindle page numbers, when half the time each “page” is three page turns anyway. And because it wasn’t reminded of the imagined world and characters waiting for me when eyes would alight on the same device I’d use for books as well as twitter or Facebook
or watching Taylor Swift videos or social media games.
E-books bought and never read leave little in the way of tangible reminders of my failure as a reader. That’s not to say I condone the idea that I should feel like I have to read everything I buy. After all, life is much too short to inflict myself with That Famous Blowhard’s Mostly Wrong Guide to US History (For Kids!)**. If something’s just bad, it’s perfectly okay to toss it aside. The tossing, though, should be an active choice, as intentional as plucking nose hair, and possibly just as painful. Not something you never got around to finishing because, meh, why didn’t I get around to finishing it, again?
All of which is to say, I am The Phoenix, happy reborn as a physical book reader from the ashes of my recent ways. Not a zealot, or a crusader for the printed book. I still hold that it’s a preference, not a dictate. And I, will, definitely, still read e-books from time to time, when the circumstances demand it (anybody want to watch the kids while the Puddinette and I go to Jamaica?). But I’m proud to say that I’m a print book kinda guy. I want my books. I need my books. And anyone who claims that physical books are dead is welcome to have a nice, long chat with me about it.
Hell, I’ll even buy them coffee, if they’ll meet me at the bookstore.
*It was also a wonderful book, but that’s another post.
**Not that I ever bought that, Great Gods of the Lizard People forbid