I'm an avid reader. At any given moment, I carry with me in my computer bag three to four books I am currently working through, so that if I have thirty or more minutes in between my busy schedule, I can find a place to stop and read. In addition, I almost daily check websites I have bookmarked for articles and posts I am interested in reading. The one sense I never want to lose is my eyesight. I cannot imagine being in a world where I cannot read.
One of the things I used to do was to finish every book I started, even if after a few chapters I did not like it. I suppose it was one of those things where I was taught to finish what I began, so I suffered through a bad book until the very last chapter, of the very last page, of the very last sentence, of the very last word... until my very last groan.
And then one day, while I was suffering through another bad book, I had this epiphany-- life is too short and there are too many good books in print to languish through a bad one. So now, after three chapters (sometimes less if the chapters are long), if I conclude the book is a bad one, I close it, put a big red X on the title page, and place it on my shelf where it looks good in my library, but can no longer inflict suffering on anyone else.
So, you are probably asking yourself, "What makes for a bad book?" The answer is certainly subjective. What may constitute a bad book for me may not be so for you, just like someone might enjoy one movie, but not another. But, let me take a little space to clarify what constitutes for me a bad book.
First, I do not judge a book bad based on disagreement with its premise. I make it a habit to read with some regularity books I know I am going to fundamentally disagree with. The echo chamber must be avoided at all cost, particularly since we Americans live in a context where there are too many echo chambers where we can comfortably reside and where our cherished assumptions and beliefs will never be questioned-- only affirmed. Such chambers are deadly for the intellectual life and for our life together as we work toward what is good. So, my determination that a book is bad has nothing to do with the conclusions.
Second, one characteristic of a bad book is that it presents a bad argument. I have read books I disagree with but have been impressed by the rigor of the argument presented. I have read books that I agree with but have been less than impressed with the specious (superficially plausible, but actually wrong) argument given. An author who cannot argue a subject well should not be read.
Third, another characteristic of a bad book is wording that makes reading difficult and/or boring. Good writing should be substantive and clear with the necessary adjectives and adverbs (not too many) to bring the writing to life. Bad writing is convoluted to make reading hard to follow, or so wooden that it reads like a medical diagnosis. If I can't follow it or if I find myself falling asleep after three chapters, it gets the red X.
Fourth, a bad book does not flow but chases after too many squirrels at one time. A good book is focused, focused, focused. It's the difference between a rifle and buckshot. A rifle singularly focuses in on its target. Buckshot scatters all over the place. I do not finish what I call buckshot books.
Fifth and finally, a bad book does not stoke the imagination. Whether it's a novel or a history book, a good book causes one to see above the letters on the page to imagine more. What are the larger implications of what is being said? What future books can now be imagined because of the publication of the current book I am holding in my hand?
I am sure that others could add to the list, but for me this is sufficient.
Life is too short to read bad books... and it's also too short to drink bad coffee.
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