On Not Reading a Book

  • By Annette Gendler
  • February 19, 2015

Why there’s no shame in abandoning a story.


I didn't read the book for the December meeting of the Memoir Workshop I teach at StoryStudio Chicago. If the instructor doesn't read the assigned book, that's pretty bad, right? Of course I felt guilty; I'm usually conscientious about reading the books for my workshops and the books I review or whose authors I interview (this apparently isn't a given).

But I also felt oddly proud.

In this workshop, we have a reading for each monthly meeting, usually a book, but sometimes a shorter piece as well. Most of the time, students suggest the books and then vote on which ones they prefer. Thus, there is maximum buy-in and good variety in our selections as the class doesn't depend solely on my taste.

My students had picked the book I didn't read. Usually, our selections are an education, not only for them, but for me, because often they are books I wouldn't have read otherwise. This has generally been an enriching experience. Even if I didn't like a book, I still read it because I found it enlightening to examine why I didn't like it. Sometimes you can learn more from a book you don’t like than from one you do.

Not so with this one. I read the first chapter and decided I did not want to have this book in my memory bank. It wasn't going to add to my understanding of the world. I wasn't going to learn anything writing-wise. The language was foul, something I generally don't appreciate (one reason I don't like Stephen King's highly acclaimed On Writing). If the f-word is in every other sentence, I wonder, "You can't come up with something else?"

The narrator was unreliable (which I can put up with; see my love for Lauren Slater's memoir Lying), but this narrator was also jerking me around, and I wasn't into her enough to put up with that. Lastly, the subject matter put me off and I didn't want to have those images in my head. Deer disemboweled on the dining-room table? I can deal with that if the narrator makes it worth my while. This one didn't.

So, how did my students react when I revealed that I hadn't finished the book? They laughed and applauded! It helped that most of them didn't like it, either. One of them in particular had been feeling sorry for me for always having to read everything (well, they do, too!), but it seemed that my refusal to read this one also set an example: Stand up for your taste. Be discerning in your reading. Curate what you put into your head.

We had a great discussion about that, actually. I believe that whatever you read influences your writing and your thinking. So you have to be careful about what you put into your brain. It's all there somewhere and comes out somehow. That's not to say I only read high-brow literature, but more and more, I'm staying true to my taste and my expectation of what's worth my time.

This book wasn't.

In case you’re wondering, it was Jenny Lawson's Let's Pretend This Never Happened, which, I understand, was a bestseller. Clearly there are plenty of readers out there who do not share my opinion. But that's okay. They have their taste, and I have mine.

Annette Gendler is a nonfiction writer and teaches memoir writing at StoryStudio Chicago.

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