I finished Sara Nelson’s book So Many Books, So Little Time last night and although I didn’t like it any better by the end than I was liking it when I wrote this, I did find myself fairly contentedly reading on to the end. I’m not sure why the experience of reading the book was positive when I felt unimpressed by it — perhaps I enjoyed the experience of not liking it or maybe I kept hoping it would get better. Its short chapters certainly kept me feeling that I was breezing my way through it which made it easy to keep going. Perhaps it’s that I enjoy book talk so much I’ll contentedly read it even when it doesn’t impress me.
The things that annoyed me about the book can probably be summed up by Nelson’s comment in one of the book lists at the back; here she is commenting on J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. She finds it:
a surprisingly readable novel about racism and family in South Africa, proof positive that prize winners — this won the Booker — are not automatically homework.
Why surprisingly readable? Why assume this book would be dull? And why assume prize winners are homework? There’s something anti-intellectual about the tone here that bugs me.
But I was struck by one thing she said, and I’d like to get your opinion on it. She talks about the “skip-around method”: “the one where you read the end first and then work your way back to the middle, if not the beginning,” and she says that “people skip around in books all the time.” For the first 30 years of her life, she writes, she wouldn’t have considered doing such a thing, but she considers it now because she’s stuck in a book she really wants to finish and she thinks that reading the ending might motivate her. She does a survey of her friends and finds that many of them don’t read in order.
I can’t think of a time when I’ve done this. Do you skip around? I pretty much subscribe to Nelson’s earlier philosophy that:
You have to start at the beginning and get to the end before you’re allowed to comment on what came in between. There’s an order to these things you must respect. Beginnings, middles, and ends are meant to be beginnings, middles, and ends: confuse them at your own peril.
I don’t even read collections of stories or essays or poems out of order, or at least not often. I’m probably too devoted to the “rules” of reading, too worshipful of the text as the author presents it to me. But as far as novels go, I don’t really want to know the ending until I get there.
What do you think — is skipping around common?