What does it take to make you give up on a book? How bad is too bad? How boring too boring? How lame too lame? How do you decide that there is no further potential coming in a few pages to sweep you off of your feet? You never really know, do you? It always makes me sad to put a book aside—what sweet quotes will never greet my ears? what interesting plot turn? what clever paragraph?—but ultimately life is too short to read mediocre books.
Despite my belief that my time is worth more than so-so writing, I still rarely give up on a book. Maybe I’m just very good at picking out new books (thanks in large part to the book blog hive mind), or maybe there is less poor writing in the world than I sometimes pessimistically think (haha YEAH RIGHT, my brain isn’t capable of that kind of optimism). There were only three books that I started but could not bear to finish in 2014: Rapture of the Nerds by Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow, The City’s Son by Tom Pollock, and All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park. I haven’t given up on a book I’ve started since September.
But today I decided to put down The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon. The premise sounded interesting, if mildly technophobic (society has gone fully future tablet, the written word is almost obsolete, someone goes missing, conspiracy, mystery, something something word flu), but the execution left me cold, uninterested, and underwhelmed. The opener was wonderful (so wonderful that I will probably share it during a So It Begins post despite not finishing), and everything afterward just a little too meh.
I disliked the female lead, but was persuaded to stay by a male point of view character with a tangential, funnily over-intellectual writing style. I wasn’t pulled in by the mystery (the disappearance of annoying female lead’s father), which was built nowhere near as masterfully as City of Stairs or The Girl in the Road, the two books I read before it. Without the mystery’s tension working on me, the whole thing fell flat. Add to that the fact that the book’s world is entirely white (though there were maybe a few Chinese characters in a sort-of sweat shop situation just before I jumped ship), takes place in New York City (never read a book that took place there before cough cough choke), and you just have something I can’t manage to get excited about.
Every couple of pages I would change my mind about giving up. Maybe there would be something interesting on the next page?! No. Hmm. But the next one?! No. Hmm. Well…one more? Then slowly budding anger: when the fuck is something going to happen to pull me in? When is this jumble of people and places and objects and facts going to turn into a convincing line of story that I can’t look away from? I wanted to know what Graedon would ultimately use the story to say about how technology is changing language and the way we read and think. I still do. But after 68 pages, I decided that finding out wasn’t important enough to merit four more hours of my time.
The Word Exchange is Graedon’s debut novel, so a few bumps can be expected, but The Girl in the Road was Byrne’s debut as well and there are (almost) no bumps in that intense bundle of words. While I won’t give The Word Exchange any slack for being a debut, I also won’t give up on Graedon’s writing. Maybe she’ll hit it out of the park with book number two.
Afterwards, I turned back to my to-read shelf to pick another book. After handling Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater and Ariel by Steven R. Boyett, I decided on This Is the Way the World Ends by James Morrow. On page ten I loved it more than I loved a single line of The Word Exchange. On page 20 I was mentally purchasing all of Morrow’s other books. This is what I read for. This is what I love. This is why you should never feel guilty about putting down a book.
What was the last book you put aside unfinished?