It’s summer, the ideal time for reading a good book and I’m in a book drought. If you enjoy reading, you know what I mean. You just can’t seem to find a compelling book, no matter how hard you try, and your whole world seems gray.
For better or for worse, my mood often depends on the book I’m currently reading—and whether a story is keeping my mind engaged. Yes, I love the entertainment value of a good story but I also enjoy what I learn about myself and the world in the process. When I don’t have that active stimulation going on, I feel bereft, a little less alive.
This month I’ve already had two book fails. Someone recommended reading “There, There,” a book that’s garnering a lot of attention due to its innovative structure, a series of interrelated short stories, and its unique focus on people of Native American ancestry living in Oakland. I love reading books set in familiar places so I thought the Oakland angle would be interesting. (Not long ago I read another contemporary novel, “Lucky Boy,” set in my own neighborhood in Berkeley and found the local references spot on and funny.)
But I just could not get into “There, There.” It was too hard to keep track of the many characters and just when I got interested in one, the chapter would end and a new story would begin. I got impatient. It reminded me a little bit of reading the “Cloud Atlas,” another book of interrelated short stories (albeit even more complex). I felt guilty for giving up, but about halfway through I put the book down.
The same thing happened when I tried to read my next book, a much-lauded novel set in Spain and given to me by a friend who lives there. I thought I’d like reading about a familiar place I’ve been to many times, but in this case, I didn’t care much about the main character, an American girl living in Seville. She seemed naïve and one-dimensional. A book is a fairly large investment of time and if you don’t care much about the characters or have trouble following them you won’t stay interested.
My favorite novels are ones that zero in on one or two compelling characters and sweep you through a few eventful years—or decades—of their life. I loved the 2013 book “The Goldfinch,” which follows a young boy Theo’s coming of age as he loses his mother, befriends a kind antiques dealer who serves as his mentor and falls in love. I really cared about this character, for whom life had dealt severe blows, and I wanted to see him succeed. I remember reading the almost 800-page book nonstop on my Iphone on a cross-country flight, I was so engrossed. It had the right elements of likeable but flawed characters, charged plot and big questions about life. (It also won the Pulitzer Prize, so important people agreed it was very good.) For me, the lasting parts of the book are about Theo finding friendship in unlikely places.
I was lucky to pick up “The Goldfinch” and enjoy it. Reading contemporary novels, even ones that have won awards, is always a risk, since they haven’t had to stand the test of time. Not everyone loved “The Goldfinch.” If I want a surer bet, I’ll try a classic.
The last novel I loved before my book drought was a classic—John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden.” As the title implies, the book deals with issues of a Biblical scale—brotherly jealousy, the nature of evil and curses passed on from one generation to the next. True confession—I listened to “East of Eden” on Audible, a method I’ve come to enjoy more and more. At first I listened only during my daily walks. Soon, however, I kept listening as I made dinner, folded laundry and washed dishes. I had become totally absorbed in the world of Adam Trask, his sons and their attempts to find love and fortune in pre-World War I California.
John Steinbeck is a masterful storyteller and knows just how to make the reader care about his characters by giving enough details while at the same time moving the plot along. Early on we meet one of the most evil characters I’ve come across in literature and she keeps the story unpredictable and full of danger. Steinbeck knew what he was doing. This character forces all the others to confront not only her evil but their own shadow sides. In the end, Steinbeck’s message is liberating: We aren’t simply doomed to repeat past mistakes. We have free will and can make our own choices. I thought about this for weeks afterward. I knew it would be hard to find a follow-up book that combined such a good story and thought-provoking subtext.
Good literature can do what no other medium can do. (A friend of mine thinks movies have this power, but I think that’s debatable.) It has the power to get under our skin, occupy our minds for weeks while we are reading, develop our sympathy and empathy for others, make us question ourselves, and then change how we see the world forever. Does this mean we should read more? Or always have a book in hand?
I once read a blog post written by a guy who claimed to read well over 100 books per year. His strategy was to be constantly reading, whether he was standing in line at the post office or waiting for his food to heat up in the microwave or while eating lunch. He kept a careful list of books in his queue so that as soon as he finished a book he would have another one ready to go. Part of me liked the challenge of reading so much and wondered if I could read more. But another part of me thought this sounded like a lousy idea. Books should be savored, discussed with others, picked up and put down and re-read. Reading for the sake of some arbitrary goal seems meaningless.
Since I started writing this blog post I decided to take my own advice and pick up another classic. I fired up my Audible app and downloaded a copy of John Steinbeck’s other heavy-hitter, “Grapes of Wrath.” Already I can say it does not have same pull of “East of Eden” for me and I’m just listening to pass the time, not because I’m wrapped up in the characters’ lives. Still, it feels like an important book to read now. The story is about a family fleeing the 1930s dustbowl in Oklahoma and embarking on a perilous journey to California. They face hardship and discrimination along the way. It seems this is a story ripped from today’s headlines. I wonder what lessons, if any, this book might hold for us today.
With any good book, you can’t predict where the hero’s quest will lead him or her. I don’t know where this book drought will lead either. Will I be pulled into “The Grapes of Wrath”? Will I discover something poignant or life-changing or a new political point of view? Or will I just read on and hope for the next “Goldfinch” to hit the shelves?
Note: Special thanks to Miguel, who coined the term “book drought” when we were talking recently, and who happens to be reading “The Goldfinch” right now, independently of my suggestion!