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When to put it down?

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Tuesday, Feb 26, 2008

I’m a dedicated reader, committed to finishing whatever I’ve started. Sure, there have been one or two notable exceptions, like the time I stumbled across Pasternak’s classic, Doctor Zhivago, my sophomore year of university in the central library and decided that since my namesake is derived from a major character, I should take the plunge. Never finished it, to my shame. I have a shortlist of books that I will read at some point, although I am more often too distracted by books that are right in front of me to go searching for titles on the list.


So how do you decide, especially when the book in question is something you’ve been looking forward to reading, when enough is enough and your time could be better spent reading something more gripping?


When Kate Mosse’s 2005 novel, Labyrinth (Penguin), first came out, I saw it everywhere. From magazine advertisements, to the shelves of every European airport bookshop (it was released in the US in 2006), I was mesmerized by the cover and the premise. Historical fiction is more accessible for me than actual history books, there is no doubt. It didn’t bother me that Labyrinth was yet another Grail legend; it involved a clever mystery, the roots of French civilization, strong female protagonists ... Perhaps this would be the next Da Vinci Code! (Yes, I did find Dan Brown’s story to be a page-turner.)


Although I was a student at the time (read: cheap!) and too distracted by other pretty volumes to actually purchase my own copy of Labyrinth, I figured I’d read it at some point. My chance came recently when a coworker asked the librarian in the high school library where I work for some recommendations. This came off the special hidden shelf, where books go to live when they’re deemed too steamy or violent to be catalogued in the general collection. When I spotted it changing hands I exclaimed out loud and it was immediately handed to me, my coworker protesting that she had plenty of other choices before her and did not care about this particular book. I took it home and started reading. I’d been looking forward to this adventure.


Although I was not immediately enthralled, I did not despair; sometimes it takes me several sessions to really delve into a historically intricate tale, especially one that alternates between parallel stories set 800 years apart. I brushed aside uninspiring descriptions of the modern-day heroine, Alice, as having hair “the color of soft brown sugar” and waited for her to learn a lesson from early mishaps, which largely involved being in the wrong place at the wrong time. No such luck. The alternate leading lady, circa 1200 AD, became far more interesting and I stalled on portions of the narrative set in modern-day France, even considering skipping those chapters and reading only about Alais, who chooses adventure rather than shying away from it.


My first inclination to fast-forward through chapters about Alice and read only about Alais should have been a big warning flag: put down the book and step away. If you’re not interested in half the subject matter of a particular book, at what point do you decide that there are too many good reads out there to waste your time on a story that doesn’t grip you and inspire you to keep turning the pages?


What was the last literary waste of your time?


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