“Last Friday these two guys were tossing around a ball and one guy nailed the other right in the face. I mean, it was a mess, blood everywhere, the nurse came out, the place was in chaos, his girlfriend was all freaking out, and you just sat there and read. I mean, you never even looked up. I thought, ‘I have never seen anyone read so intensely before in my entire life. I have to meet that girl.'”
– Dean Forester, Gilmore Girls season 1
Some books make me focus with Rory Gilmore level of intensity. I can’t put them down. Others…don’t. They are “putdownable.”
I struggled through reading A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson while I was in Michigan. I kept finding excuses to put it down and do other things. The experience baffled me, for reasons I’ll outline below. But it got me thinking about how I engage with books. What makes a book “unputdownable” vs. “putdownable” for me?
I thought about my reading experiences, and decided that they mostly fit into three categories:
1. I am reading a book that completely absorbs me.
I don’t want to do anything else but read it. I’ve occasionally missed my subway stop because I’m so engrossed in what’s on the page in front of me. These books are “unputdownable.” These are the books I tend to recommend to others, and re-read myself. Books in this category usually have wonderful characters, writing that makes the story come alive, and/or fascinating subject matter.
There’s definitely a spectrum for this category – from regularly absorbing to extremely absorbing. But I would say that most of the books I read fall somewhere on this spectrum. I think the reason that so much of my reading is enjoyable is a combination of a few factors:
- I love reading, very much. I pick up books with enthusiasm and with the expectation that they will captivate me. Like a lot of things in life, our attitude can greatly impact our experience.
- I enjoy a very wide variety of types of literature. I love fiction, non-fiction, poetry, fantasy, mysteries, children’s lit, etc.
- I’m pretty good at selecting books to read that I’ll like. I’ve been reading for about 26 years. I know what I like, and I’m able to expand and grow my own tastes with recommendations from trusted sources.
2. I am reading a book that fails to completely “hook” me – I have to remind myself to continue reading it.
While reading it, I’m easily distracted – my mind wanders and I find myself making excuses to put the book down and do something else. I usually push through and finish them anyway, but once in a while I decide to cut my losses and not bother.
I’ve heard authors argue that it’s not their job to make us like their characters, and I would tend to agree. There are a great number of books with “unlikeable” main characters that are still excellent books. I would argue though that it IS the author’s job to make us care about their characters, whether they are “likable” or not. When we don’t care about the characters or what’s happening in the story, I think we have a right to dislike the book as a whole. But characters aren’t the only reason a book can fail to engage – it can also be the writing style, the plot, etc.
I also think that sometimes books fall into this category through no fault of their own. Sometimes we’re not in the right mood for a particular book, and we’d do well to put it aside until we are ready for it. Sometimes life is hectic and busy, with exciting or horrible things happening that make focusing on any book difficult. (Usually during these times I fall back on re-reading comforting favorites.) Sometimes we’re just in a plain old reading slump.
3. I am reading a classic piece of literature.
For some reason, I seem to interact with classics differently than modern lit. The individual classic may fall anywhere in the spectrum of “absorbing-ness” above, but I approach it with a scholarly perspective. I think that reading major tomes of classic literature recreates the experience of being in university for me, which I loved very much. I often set a schedule for myself – a goal of reading a certain number of pages or chapters a day. I approach these books with dedication and focus, and enjoy the experience. I’m a pretty big nerd. There are a few exceptions to this – once in a while I pick up a classic that is so surprisingly dull or awful that I’ll decide to stop reading.
So, enter A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. This book completely baffled me. It had all the elements of a category 1 “absorbing” novel – I liked the characters very much, I cared about what happened to them, and I enjoy Kate Atkinson’s writing style. I love fiction set during WWII. And yet I had to drag myself across the finish line with this one. Why? It still baffles me.
The only idea I have about why it may not have worked for me is the structure. I don’t mind books that jump around forward and backward through character’s lives, it can be a unique way to unfold a story. Kate Atkinson employs this technique in both A God in Ruins and Life After Life (the previously published companion novel). In A God in Ruins it gets out of control in some places – she has structured it so that each chapter is set in a certain period of the character’s lives, and labels it with the year. But then within each section she jumps around freely – in one alarming part it changes timeframe from paragraph to paragraph with no warning or lead in. I’m not sure if this was enough to make me avoid continuing to read it or not, but it didn’t help.
Despite its “putdownable” nature, I’m still glad I read it. As Shannon at River City Reading has pointed out – it’s nearly impossible to review without spoilers. I won’t try to hash out the plot here, but the ending is quite memorable, and makes up for the rest a little bit. I also loved the characters of Bertie and Sunny, Teddy’s grandchildren. I wish we could have spent more time getting to know them, especially as young adults. The Socratic Salon will be discussing A God in Ruins starting June 3rd, and I’m planning on joining in the convo – it should be a good one!
I’m still turning over in my mind what elements make a book “putdownable” and would love your input. What makes you struggle to get through a book? What makes you not able to put a book down? Have you still ended up loving books that you’ve struggled to get through? Do you notice patterns with novels you love and novels you have to force yourself to finish?
Disclosure: I received an advanced copy of A God in Ruins from Hachette Book Group in exchange for my honest opinions. Thank you to Hachette for the opportunity to read & review this book!