Saturday, January 10, 2009

A Study in Reading Habits: Low-Tech Advice

Five Rules I Read By:

1. Never read a history book by an author who is a journalist. Journalists aren't historians and usually do not write very good history. Journalists who are interested in history ought to take lessons from Tony Horwitz. He does not write history--he writes about it.

2. Be wary of novels by New England writers. I have nothing against New England and New Englanders, but I rarely like their novels. Since the days of Emerson and Thoreau, our friends from the Northeast have acted as if they own American literature. Usually, their novels are about self-absorbed thirty-somethings who have no grasp on life and wonder (over the course of 400 pages) why their lives persist in sucking. I recommend reading writers from anywhere south and west of New York.*

3. Avoid memoirs. Memoirs tend to consist of an overabundance of whine and cheese--if you catch my drift. I'm not usually interested in someone's alcohol problem or spiritual odyssey through Southeast Asia. I'd rather watch a Sponge Bob marathon than taint my soul with crap like Eat, Pray, Love or Reading Lolita in Tehran. If I want to read about someone's life, I'll read his or her biography (as long as he or she is dead).**

4. Remember that few novels sold at Wal-mart are worth reading. My heart grew sick the other day when I saw that Wal-mart is selling a mass-market paperback edition of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Sure, good literature seems to be reaching the masses--but what price glory?

5. Avoid novels with a happy endings. Happy endings are for Hollywood. Nothing ruins a novel like a happy ending. As one of my BYU professors put it, a novel that ends happily is a novel that ends too soon. If I hear that a novel is uplifting or inspiring, I usually do not bother with it. I get my daily doses of happiness from real life. When I want to escape the happiness of the world around me, I stick my nose in a depressing book. Catharsis does wonders for the soul.***

* Yes, I know neither Emerson nor Thoreau were novelists. And I know that Cormac McCarthy was born in Rhode Island.
**I once read an excerpt of Eat, Pray, Love and nearly lost both of my eyes when they rolled too far back in my head. I actually don't know much about Reading Lolita--and what I do know about it doesn't interest me. I have read Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, which is an example of memoir at its worst. I wouldn't line a hamster cage with that book. Educator Mike Rose has a lot of good things to say about education in America, but his memoir Lives of the Boundary spends far too much time on his often-irrelevant life experiences.
***Not all happy endings are bad. An ambiguous ending has saved many an overly happy ending.


  1. Oh Scott - happy endings are good. I'm glad that Jane Eyre ended up with Mr. Rochester. She had a lousy life and it was good that she got her happy ending. (And yes - I can see your eyes rolling as you read this!)

  2. I'm just an unsophisticated reader because I like a happy ending just as much as I like reading about interesting people's experiences in finding their way in life. (To be fair they do have to have learned something of value to make it worthwhile. I'm not interested in reading the chronicles of stupid people doing stupid things.)
    I love your list- and your sense of humor!