Reading Many Books at Once–Dilemma or Delight? (Well, It Depends, If One of the Books is Magic for Beginners.)

When I was in grad school working on my comprehensive exams, one of the things I had to learn to do pretty quickly was read many different books at once.

Now, if you think about it, when you’re in any kind of school situation, you naturally read many different books at once, all the time, to keep up with your different classes.  Somehow, though, that seemed different.  Maybe because of the “compartmentalization” that going to school requires—i.e., when I am in my Whitman seminar, I am only reading Whitman; when I’m in my Women’s History class, I’m only reading Women’s History books.  But of course, you’re still taking multiple classes in a single semester, so you’re actually reading multiple books, and you might not finish one on one day because you need to prepare for a different class the next day.

Logically that makes sense, and yet when it came down to my comps, I suddenly felt like, OMG, I have to read 100 books (or whatever it was) all at the same time??? How will I keep them all straight?

And of course, the reality is, you’re not reading 100 books at once.  You’re maybe reading five or six at once—and taking notes, to keep them all straight.  And many of them were books of poetry, so of course, it’s easy to finish off reading one at a stretch.  But you add in books about practice, about writing, about theory, and you just can’t read 400 pages at a sitting.  (Well, I can’t.)  So you learn to negotiate, and you work your way through the list.

All of this is by way of saying that I used to be particularly rigid about not starting a new book until I had finished the previous one.  When you’re reading for personal enjoyment (i.e., not studying for a comprehensive exam), you can be restrictive like that.  My thought was:  be disciplined, finish the book!  And then of course comps happened and then I let that goal go.  You have to, to manage all that information without losing your mind.

These days, I do mostly just read one book at a time—you can inhabit the world and connect on a really deep level, concentrating on the characters in front of you, and only have them to think about for the duration of the novel.  But occasionally I read multiple books at the same time.  Sometimes, it’s because my attention is wandering in the book I’m trying to focus on.  Sometimes people tell me I need to read X, Y, and Z, so I think, ok, I’ll add them into the rotation.

As I mentioned last week, I was reading Aimee Bender and Kelly Link, in between reading chapters from Kerry Greenwood’s Queen of the Flowers.  But then I got on this Kelly Link kick, because multiple people were saying how she awesome she was, so I focused entirely on Kelly Link.

And got really pissed off.

There are stories in Magic for Beginners that I like.  I liked the first one, “The Faery Handbag,” quite a bit, and both of the zombie stories (“The Hortlak” and “Some Zombie Contingency Plans”) though I didn’t love their endings, were enjoyable in their way.  What pissed me off though was the story, “Stone Animals,” a story which my little writing workshop held up to the highest esteem, and so I had great expectations for it.

It is not rational, when we have a visceral repugnance against something like a fiction story.  But I repugn “Stone Animals.”  I despise it.  I hate it so much, in fact, that I wasn’t even sure that I was going to finish Magic for Beginners at all because it took me so long to get through, and I was annoyed that Kelly Link forced me to read it since she wrote it.  Every page was like pouring acid in my eyes and gulping down deodorant.  Catherine’s obsessive painting, Henry’s inability to quit his job, the rabbits, the rabbits, the rabbits—really?  About the only thing I liked about the story was how they’d stop using some household object because it was suddenly “haunted.”  But after multiple pages of this, I was like, come on.

Perhaps what really pissed me off was that there was no payoff for the story. Like, after I felt I’d given my life’s blood to read it, to discover the rabbits were waiting for Henry to get on their back and be prepared for an attack against Catherine’s party inside the house?  WTF?

Actually, I don’t need an acronym, I need to write that out:  WHAT THE FUCK?

Now, considering the kind of writer that Kelly Link is, I know better, after having read several of her stories, than to expect a conventional, satisfying ending.  She’s kind of out there—she writes horror and fantasy, and they have their own genre-imposed behaviors and audience expectations.  But the horror of “Stone Animals” is its obsession and obsessiveness, and its obsessive repetition, and at some point, I just really wanted to fling the book across the room.  I mean, Goddammit, Kelly Link.

So you’re saying, Why not just stop reading?

Because I was looking for a payoff.  I was looking for THE BIG REASON she wrote that story—I wanted to believe that somehow after reading 53 pages, investing that kind of time into unlikeable characters and a story that just seemed to go nowhere, that everything would be clear—albeit clear in Kelly Link’s kind of fucked up way.  But no.  I got to the end, and couldn’t even feel the relief that it was over.  I just felt angry and betrayed.  (I know, not rational.)

I had to put to put the book aside after that—even though the next story was called “Catskin,” and I’m drawn to anything cat related—because I was too mad.  I was just too mad at her and didn’t want my brain to feel defiled any more.

So I started reading the first book of Chobits (manga) by Clamp (a collective)—I’d long since seen the anime, but found the first book buried on a high shelf in my office (from the previous occupant, I suppose), and thought it would be good to read, then I picked up Kerry Greenwood again, and Aimee Bender… then went back to Kelly Link.

I’m in the middle of “The Great Divorce,” which is interesting from an idea standpoint (that a person can marry a dead person and have dead children), but I find my passion (good, bad, or otherwise) for Link is spent.  I’m wondering why everyone loves her, in other words.  Yes, she’s inventive, but at what cost?  My sanity—what little there is of it—is precious, and I don’t like getting angry at books.  That seems like a waste of time.  Still, I’m determined to finish the book so I can say I finished it.  But it’s happening about six pages at a stretch.  I find that’s all I am emotionally prepared to give her.

(Sadly, when I bought Magic for Beginners [after all the Kelly Link love I was hearing about], I also bought her Pretty Monsters.  I feel depressed just thinking of it sitting on my nightstand and taunting me to read it, knowing as I do that it will probably be more of the same.)

I’m also currently reading the manga for the Ouran High School Host Club. (I’ve watched and loved the anime multiple times, and thought I should finally read the manga—and it’s just as funny as the anime, and I like how the author, Bisco Hatori, periodically makes herself known and comments on her own work, which amuses me—although I know lots of people don’t like when an author breaks into the world of the story.  Generally I don’t either, but maybe it’s ok in a comedy full of highjinks and farce—you learn to accept that anything’s possible, including authorial intrusion.)  And I’m reading a couple of books of poetry, one of which is Daniel Khalastchi’s Tradition, the other, The Octopus Game, by Nicky Beer.

Speaking of the “payoff,” in case you’re wondering what it is for this post:  I guess it’s this—that my reading process is kind of like my writing process—all over the place.  And that’s ok.  If a book annoys you, put it down and come back later to it.  Or don’t.  There’s no Book Police out there who will hunt you down if you don’t finish a book—especially if you’re not reading for educational requirements.

I don’t know why I feel like I HAVE to finish a book though–like I will finish Magic for Beginners, even if it kills me—which it very well might.  I certainly don’t feel that way about my writing.  If something’s not working in my poetry (and especially my abortive attempts at fiction), I set it aside, and come back later. Or I don’t.  I guess with books that are already written (in comparison to my writing which is in various stages of completion anyway), if you don’t finish them, you’re denied that little perk of feeling a sense of accomplishment.

And if you think about it, that’s really ok too.

3 thoughts on “Reading Many Books at Once–Dilemma or Delight? (Well, It Depends, If One of the Books is Magic for Beginners.)

  1. Sorry to hear your reading of Magic for Beginners has been less than enjoyable. But great wisdom you share that you don’t have to keep reading something if you don’t like it.

  2. Well, I think it was really just the one story that soured me… and perhaps my agita won’t last for long. I do acknowledge her inventiveness… and I don’t have to like something because other people like it. It’s just… I want to like her because lots of people like her (like you). Sometimes following the crowd is nice.

  3. I’m not sure if I finished Magic for Beginners, but I do remember those rabbits. I find Link’s inventiveness to be what draws me to her. I’m not expecting as much of an intellectual or emotional payoff at the end. I can see why you would be frustrated given the praise you heard.

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