Reader, interrupted

I recall Kevin of kevinfromcanada once commenting on how he reads. If I recall correctly he has a chair (quite a nice chair I think) in a pleasant and well lit room where he has time to sit comfortably and really get to grips with a book.

It sounds idyllic. Given life and money enough I may well have the same myself one day. Not yet though. Presently I read on the daily commute and during free moments at the weekends. I don’t have that many free moments at the weekends. I actually have no particular complaints about that. Not everyone even has time to read on their commute so I’m not particularly badly off. Occasionally though it does mean that my reading gets a touch interrupted.

If I get busy at work I of course work longer hours. That then means I am likely to be tired going in to the office. Perhaps too tired to read. It happens, particularly if what I’m reading requires close attention.

The irony is that interruptions only happen to good books. If I’m reading a light crime novel then the odds on my being too tired to follow it are pretty low. Even if I am I’ll probably pick up the thread again when I get back to it. With a more serious book though frustration can very quickly set in.

My most recent blog entry was about JG Farrell’s novel Troubles. That was actually my second attempt at reading it. The first time I got to about 50 pages or so in and then got so busy at work that I didn’t have time to give it the attention it needed. When I found a spare half hour I was so tired I would read the same sentence twice without taking it in. Happily 50 pages isn’t that much. I put the book back on the shelf and gave up on it for a while. It was months before I returned to it. Enough time that I could restart it without an overpowering feeling of deja vu in the early pages.

Recently I’ve been reading Gordon Burn’s non-fiction work Pockety Money. It’s been badly disrupted by work. I’ve had to pause it in fact on three occasions now, and the truth is it’s lost all sense of flow as a result. The problem is I’m about halfway in.

So, what to do? If I continue I know it will be a grind. I’m no longer enjoying what I can recognise is a good book. I’d be finishing it for the sake of doing so, which is pointless.

The alternative of course is to shelve it. I’m so far in though that it’s inevitable when I pick it back up that I’ll spend a fair while reading material I’ve already read. I’m so far into it in fact that to restart it could just lead to my abandoning it again as no longer fresh. I could potentially never finish it which given it is a good book would be rather a shame.

Sometimes there aren’t good answers, and of course this isn’t a serious problem in the grand scheme of things (or even the middling scheme of things). I know for a fact that if I continue I’ll be killing the book given how much it’s now been disrupted, so I won’t continue. That may mean I won’t ever read it, but at least I give myself the chance to do so (probably in a year or two).

A question then. For anyone reading this, is this a problem you have? Do you always press on? Do you shelve and revisit? If so do you actually revisit after shelving? Do you just plain give up and move on, accepting that sometimes even a good book just doesn’t find the space it needs to be read properly?

For me the answer is that Pocket Money is going back on the shelf. I started Bukowski’s Factotum this morning. I’m already enjoying it hugely, and the Burn will be waiting for when I’ve forgotten it enough for it to be fresh again. Not ideal, but in the absence of a comfortable chair in a well lit room with plenty of time not ideal is sometimes where we find ourselves.

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27 Comments

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27 responses to “Reader, interrupted

  1. This happens to me all the time and as you say it’s always with more interesting reads that require concentration. This summer I tried to read some political/historical masterpieces in preparation for university but repeated interruption meant that continuing felt futile. It’s reassuring to know a reader as accomplished as yourself sometimes has to put something back on the shelf for the forseeable future. Lovely piece, I wish I had that idyllic corner and bags of time too

  2. Hi Max,
    See the positive side: you still have time to read. When my children were younger, with a full time job and no commuting time, I couldn’t read at all. No time and no energy for it, except very very basic crime fiction.
    I do have the same problem sometimes now and you know I have a special category to file books that can be read in noisy environments or with a tired brain. I think it’s precious to know the good ones which qualify for that category and I hope it’s useful to readers who visit my blog.

    When I think I’m ruining a book because I’m too tired, I put it back on the shelf. With time, I’m getting better at not picking too demanding books when I’m tired. It also happens with books I have in English and then realise I need to buy the French translation because it’s too difficult for me.
    When it happens, I put the book back on the shelf, not willing to abandon it. But I’ve noticed that it’s hard to get back to a book I’ve started once and interrupted. There’s no good solution, it depends on the “love-story” you have with that book. If you’re reading it with pleasure, you’ll start it again. If not, there’s a good chance that it will stay unread for a while.

  3. i press on a bit and when i notice it’s no use forcing it i shelve it, to 80% i revisited them later and reading something else meanwhile like you do. it’s better to put them away and give oneself and the book a chance later when now one cannot do justice to them. i do have a rocking chair and a sunlit bookroom, but i remember reading times like yours and this, less time, worse conditions, focussed me to read less junk than now maybe…of course this doesn’t compensate for the reading time one wishes to have and lacks, nothing can do that. but the books always wait on their shelves, patiently and one can always discover them again and this leads to the beauty of rereading and rediscovering…

  4. max I have a quietish life so my work dosen’t effect my reading but I m not one for tossing books and not finishing them as I feel every book has something postive in it also oif I decide to read it I trust my choice ,all the best stu

  5. No, I don’t press on. I have about a half shelf in a book case – say a little less than 1 metre wide – of books I’ve put aside and plan to go back to. Most are fiction requiring concentration, though there are some longish non-fiction that I just ran out of time for before needing to read something else.

    I still have to find my perfect reading place BUT if you look at my latest blog post you will see the sofa I blog at. My best reading place is to stretch out there, prop my feet on the wall, and read … but sometimes I nod off so the reading can be slow! When my kids were young I read mostly while waiting for them – sporting practice, piano lessons and the like. I particularly loved the piano lessons — some mums would run off and shop but not me! I’d sit in on the lesson and read to the sound of music. While it’s nice no longer having to drive kids around, I do miss these “forced” reading opps!

  6. Mrt, I get bogged down more often than I might like. So it goes. Sometimes too I just make bad choices, not necessarily a bad choice of book but a bad choice for the mood I’m in. I start something light when I need something challenging, or vice versa. So it goes.

    Emma, I’m far from badly off. I get reading time most days and much of what gets in the way is stuff I choose to put in the way – time with friends, films, music and so on.

    I’ll be posting up my Cadfael review in a couple of days. That’s precisely the sort of book you can read in noisy environments or when tired. It’s very good for that actually.

    And yes, as ever the chemistry with the book makes a difference. A book can be recognisably good, and yet not at a given time really sparking a connection.

    flowerville, there’s a definite place for junk reading. I’m not one to speak against it. It can’t be all serious all the time. If it were we might lose sight anyway of how good the serious is.

    It does sound like we have much the same approach, except the rocking chair bit. I can’t sit in one of those because I have the attention span of a five year old and either amuse myself by rocking and so forget what I was going to do or promptly fall asleep.

  7. Stu, I generally trust my choices, but I do make the occasional bad call. To be honest though it only troubles me where the choice was good but the timing bad. I do sometimes just toss books, but only if they’re actually bad and thankfully I don’t start plain bad books very often.

    WG, I used to have such a shelf, but I found it oppressive somehow. Like an unfinished obligation. Now they go back onto the general shelves.

    As if a man of 80, if I read while stretched out on a couch I guarantee I’d be asleep in about five minutes. I could be reading Le Carre or something and it would make no difference. I like to be comfortable, but in keeping with my puritan Scottish forebears ideally not too comfortable.

  8. I believe that there is a right time for any book. If I recognise a book to be well-written, but the timing is not right I shelve it in its place in the library. If it is badly written I toss it aside, destined for my next book-dump. I’m not suficiently diligent in returning to those I part-read, they have less weight when I am considering what to read next.

  9. flowerville

    i didn’t mean to say it’s bad to read junk, it’s just like you said one can’t be serious all the time. more i meant to say, sometimes, because one has so much time — and in the end even that is sometimes never enough, one wishes to be more focussed or some such. you know, cutting out the procrastination… that sort of thing.. but then again it’s useful too, the brain needs to relax sometimes… and when you have less opportunity to read you’re a bit more careful with your time. that is all.

  10. leroyhunter

    I remember that post of Kevin’s you mention…I was quite jealous. Hopefully such tranquility (and time!) lies further down the road.

    I tend to push on, I favour the book over the circumstance. As long as you’re not going days without reading anything, I find the book can usually survive moderate disruption. Similar to Emma, I’ve found that with young kids you get quite creative about when and where you read.

    Pity about Pocket Money, I really enjoyed it, but it’ll be as good when you get back to it.

  11. Anthony, I think that’s usually the right approach. That’s the joy of having a library at home in fact. Sometimes I look over the shelves seeing what fits my mood, a mood which I can’t always quite put into words until I see the book that speaks to it.

    flowerville, that’s what I interpreted you to mean. Sorry if my reply was unclear. Your thoughts on the matter are very much mine.

  12. Max: Sometimes it’s not the right time for a particular book. I do a lot of my reading at work, but my reading time varies. Sometimes I can get in a good hour. Other days I am constantly interrupted. I would NEVER try to take a Victorian multi-plot novel to work. I do, however, only read classics before bed.

    You mentioned: “The irony is that interruptions only happen to good books. If I’m reading a light crime novel then the odds on my being too tired to follow it are pretty low.”

    Different books require different things from us. I can read a crime novel, be interrupted a lot, even be tired, but as it reaches out and grabs me, I’m ok with it. Can’t say the same if I were reading, let’s say, George Eliot.

    If it were my choice, I’d shelve the Burns until the right time.

    And I’ve got two words to say to you:

    Duane Swierczynski

  13. Good crime grabs you back in. Some books require the reader to push into them. To wrestle with them to get out what’s in there. Often those are the most rewarding books.

    Good crime doesn’t ask that though. It wrestles you.

    Duane Swierczynski – I note he’s written a book called The Blonde. I love the title. Have you read it?

  14. I do have the perfect reading chair — an Eames’ chair with ottoman that has been my reading site for more than 20 years now, with more decades to come I am sure. And the latest addition to my reading corner came at Christmas last year. In one of dovegreyreader’s pictures, I noticed that her husband had found a side table that featured two levels of rotating shelves underneath. Mrs. KfC had one custom made for me, which means space for 80 books immediately at hand — and room for a couple of pipe racks, tobacco and ashtray as well. All of this with a view of the garden. All of which explains the tremendous admiration that I have for those who read on their commutes.
    I abandon very few books even when I find them frustrating — I think it is the former journalist in me. Obviously, I have more reading time than many people do but I also think there is a level of journalistic curiosity involved when I start almost any book. Even if I don’t find it rewarding, I’d like some idea of why others do.
    My weakness, however, is that an annoying, frustrating book often takes up two to three times the “reading hours” that it should — the procrastinator in me finds other things to do besides returning to it so that a book that should have been finished in two 2 1/2 hour sessions ends up take four or even six because I dally with something else (like reading the archives on this blog, or something similar).

  15. Max: I’ve read his short stories and two books in the Charlie Hardie Trilogy:
    Fun and Games
    Hell and Gone

    Both are adrenaline ride reads wherever you are. I have The Blonde but haven’t got to it yet.

    The other day, I was stuck in the dr’s office for a couple of hours. Over booked as usual. Sitting there surrounded by friggin’ cell phones, coughing, sniffing, mundane conversations, and a revolting large screen television playing non-stop medical propaganda.

    No problem! I had Hell and Back and NOTHING distracted me.

  16. It’s the librarian in me Max, I need to categorise my shelving! The Read (in various groups), the To Be Read (in Aussie, non Aussie fiction and non Aussie non fiction groups) and, and the Partially Read. They could be oppressive but I have moved them to the back end of the house!

    I want a chair with an ottoman like Kevin’s. I may, just may, stay awake longer in that.

  17. Max: No I haven’t read The Blonde. I own it but haven’t got to it yet. I’ve read the first two Charlie Hardie novels:
    Fun & Games
    Hell and Back

    Both are adrenaline-ride reads.

    The other day I was stuck in the dr’s office for a couple of hours (overbooked as usual). Surrounded by sniffing, coughing, annoying one-sided cell phone conversations, & banal comments. If that’s not enough, there was also a wall-mounted large screen television bilging forth industry-driven medical propaganda.

    No worries. I had Hell & Back with me and concentrating on reading was no problem.

  18. Speaking about reading in noisy and unfriendly environments, if someone can recommend me books to read while attending children football tournaments, it would help me…

  19. Emma: Duane Swierczynski might just work. When I read Fun & Games, I think the building could have collapsed around me and I wouldn’t have stopped reading.

  20. Thanks Guy. I got the kindle version

  21. Kevin has a truly enviable set up there, what? I am going to shamelessly copy that arrangement, thereabouts, at some point. ‘…a side table that featured two levels of rotating shelves underneath. Mrs. KfC had one custom made for me, which means space for 80 books immediately at hand — and room for a couple of pipe racks, tobacco and ashtray as well. All of this with a view of the garden.’ An almost unimprovable model. You’ve only got to throw a bag of Haribo in there somewhere and it’s job done.

    I heard (or read) somewhere the following comment: ‘If it’s not doing it after 50 pages you can feel perfectly justifiable in launching it across the room and moving on to something more worthy of your time.’ Or something like that. I leave any such offending books for a while, and if they don’t do anything second time around, bye-bye. Unless the book is something recommended by someone I trust, perhaps, in which case I may put it in a box somewhere for years down the line. In general I can be reading several things at once, many of which have been interrupted by time, occasion, over-garrulous ticket-folk on trains, children or falling asleep. I wouldn’t shelve it, if it was particularly good, even if it was interrupted many a time. Though the problem arises: something very interesting has been published. Then it’s a juggling act.

  22. I’ll check out Swierczynski. High praise. I released a comment of yours from the spam filter Guy. No idea how it ended up there.

    Lee, doesn’t he just? A goal for all of us one day.

    There’s some truth to that 50 page comment. One Huxley I recall hating until the final chapter or so which somehow redeemed all that went before, but that’s rare. To paraphrase Will Self most books don’t turn into Tolstoy on page 205. If it’s bad up to page 50, page 51 usually won’t be a revelation.

  23. I do shelve. Sometimes I am too ambitious and real life knocks me down a peg. I retire a novel about a 19th century German adventurer at the height of a hell week at work, only to shelve that for Skippy Dies, only to shelve that because it was hardbound and too heavy for the commute. I retrieved Alain de Botton’s The Romantic Movement, partly out of guilt as I’ve already shelved it once before–only to shelve it once more. My reading life these days seems to be a lot of shelving, with the promises of returning to them, and then retrieving them partly because of the guilt, partly because I hate loose ends [at least in my reading].

    Before, I’d stick with a book. To the grisly end. That made for uncomfortable reading, the suspicion that I was wasting my time regardless of how the book turned out, and the knowledge that I just wasn’t giving the book the respect it deserves. Having seen the need to snatch time away just to read–the commute, yes, but almost every day I also take about two hours between work and going home to spend time with my books–I’m more fluid with my shelving, as seen above.

    I know it’s a compromise. Dammit, real life. Still, though, I do wish more books would come my way that demand that I never put them down, even against my better judgment, even at the risk of spending the following morning sleepless.

  24. When I’m getting knocked down by work or other commitments I reach for a lighter genre title. I can whip through a good crime procedural very quickly and the focus on plot and setting gives a lot to think about without requiring much of that thought to be particularly deep. If I’m not getting enough sleep for whatever reason that’s a far better bet than a Joseph Roth or Jean Rhys, much as I love both those writers.

  25. I still remember with some regret the seven lost years when the presence of small children required an abilty to break off and resume mid-sentence, potentially every few minutes. I read almost exclusively YA fiction, and even revisited Enid Blyton.

    Happily that’s long behind me now, and latter day reading hiccups are my own doing. The Guermantes Way can languish from week to week untouched, but when the mood is right resuming does not seem to be a problem. At any given time I would usually have two or more books on the go which should make it possible to tailor one’s reading to the moment. Assuming a sensible choice of complementary volumes…

  26. That’s the thing about having a 9 to 5 that irks me. When I was a student, I read everyday, all day. Of course, it was a stressful time, because I usually had to read 5 million pages in a week. Regardless, I miss being able to devote huge chunks of time to learning, reading, digesting. Now, it’s a race to consume 5-10 pages at night before falling asleep at the end of the evening.

    I feel your pain.

  27. Enid Blyton. My heart goes out to you Sarah. I’m glad times are happier on the reading front.

    Lollipop (great name by the way), yes, quite. A lot of my days are like that too. Trying to read a bit, but not so little that I just make the book choppy.

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