Some books are meant for grazing. At least I think so. You?
My wife has way more books than I do — partly because, on the ‘appy roads that take you o’er the world, I have tended to throw off much ballast, but mainly because she is a genuine intellectual and reads much more than I, a mere tyro. Among my limited stash are several books I have not read. Some I’ve meant to get to for quite some time; some I just grabbed on an impulse that never bloomed into interest enough to get me to actually read past the beginning. (Take The American Language. I love Mencken and was glad to find a nice edition at a good price, but it turns out I much prefer to read his writing on people, places, and events than on words.)
I forgive myself this, and others too, because I believe there is no such thing as a bad reason to keep a book unless by doing so you deprive others (and, face it, most people just do not feel the want).
But more than unfinished books I have books that I have read entirely or nearly so but out of sequence. Do you ever do this? I have, all my life.
I think I got into the habit as a kid with comic books. I would spend my allowance on a couple on the weekend and read them quickly. The plots were dumb and meant nearly nothing to me; but after I got to the end of them I would lie on my bed for hours and just loll my eyes across the words and images, the pleasing scenes and segues and colors.
And when it came to word-books, I often did the same thing: I would open a book because I’d heard about a part that was interesting, and I would read that part, and if I liked that but not enough to go straight to the top and press on till the finish I’d set the book aside, and then at odd times pick it up again and flip through it, and later find another bit I liked the look of and read that, and then read another bit that looked promising, until finally I had almost the whole thing down.
H. Allen Smith’s Rhubarb was like that for me. As a teenager I got it out of the library (back when local libraries were stuffed with mid-list best-sellers of ages gone by) because it was about a cat who inherited a baseball team. I was of an age to like that idea, but I guess lots of grown men and women in 1946 liked it, too, enough to make it a best-seller, and maybe some of them read it just the way I had — they looked in the book for stuff about the cat, but then, guided by the illustrations, came across and read the passage about the team manager who got his tongue stuck in a beer can, and then the way the pre-cat team owner blackmailed a bunch of his adversaries with nude women and Mickey Finns, and then the opener (which is really good!) about how a lowlife called Doom made a nice sum exploiting a “triple your money back” advertising promise on some hair tonic. (I was especially tickled when he referred to the product as “moose pee.” I bet the class of ’46 was, too.)
In this manner I graze-read several novels over the years — included Rabbit, Run, even though it was assigned for a college class, because I was just not getting it as a story but as writing-writing it was easier to take (which, come to think of it, was true for most of my graze-reads).
I don’t know how many people do that with novels, but I doubt I’m the only one who does it with books in general — and not just once but many times over. There may be books on your shelves right now to which you are drawn to return by idleness and/or a need for comfort that you know can be had from a particular volume — even by specific parts of the volume that you may find by keyword or chapter heading or just sense memory.
I don’t hear it much discussed but I think we’re all familiar with this kind of reading and the kind of books it is usually done from. They might be books for which you can make literary claims; they may not be.
Some are word-books that are designed to be skimmable. These are what I guess are still called miscellanies — collections of short stories, but also books of stuff, often a mixed grill of attractions.
For instance, I remember an almost certainly obsolete form of paperback that people in another age would buy you when you were laid up with an illness. You found them mostly in hospital gift shops and the words “the best medicine” were often found somewhere on the cover. These books were meant to occupy and distract when the only alternative was perhaps a small black-and-white television and maybe not even that. They might have stories of the lightest kind, but mainly consisted of jokes, cartoons, little poems, and puzzles. The variety was much of the attraction — it livened up the sickbed.
I have made similar use of some more exalted volumes. There are anecdote books (like Little, Brown’s), and Bartlett’s Quotations — this is usually classed as a reference book but I suspect most of us just leaf through — as well as poetry books and anthologies.
And there are two of David Markson’s books which may or may not have been meant for the purpose but serve it especially well. The earlier of these, Reader’s Block, is a post-modern thing that in written in bite-size pieces; some of the pieces carry a hint of a narrative (writer, unable to write, maybe dying, maybe thinking of a girl, maybe dead), but many of the pieces of just clips from classic literature, which this guy would know, see, and which would have some meaning for him. Sometimes Markson gets carried away and the bits are very obviously more for his own pleasure than for that of the narrator (who is probably him anyway, that being the way of his generation of post-modernists); one such, for example, is a rather mean list of Nobel winners that, though unlabelled as such, Markson clearly finds unworthy. But many are literary quotes and place and character names of varying degrees of familiarity, and one can make a game of recognizing them, but even when that use has been exhausted there is pleasure to be had in just scrolling through the Lit Bits and lighting one’s own synaptic fires with them. (Markson later did a similar volume called This Is Not a Novel and I am convinced that one was meant to serve this purpose.)
These may not be the most estimable books in my collection, but I find over the years they’re the ones I’m most fond of, because while other books have given me the rewards of high art, these have given me comfort, and I’m just that shallow.
What about you? Do you have, or have you had, books like that?
Doris Lessing's kind of like that for me. Or some of her stuff is. The Golden Notebook. I don't care I don't care la la la don't tell me any criticism ... I devoured it. Read it maybe 9 times in a row. Summer Before Dark, also a balm to me. No one I know talks about Pearl S. Buck but I loved a couple of her books esp the Good Earth. In high school nobody was reading her. It nourished me. I read Adrian McKinty's books all out of sequence. The Irish books. He's now got major bestsellers (set in'Merica) and good for him. He's bloody well earned it. But the Sean Duffy series and the Dead series are stellar gems. That can be read out of sequence and it won't hurt a bit.
I don’t "graze" novels I have never read before, because how the hell could you follow the plot, LOL? But I do read a lot of nonfiction, usually historical biographies or books on sociology/politics, and I dip in and out of those. Most recently I’m reading Myth America, edited by the Princeton historian Kevin Kruse, and I am sampling the various essays. With biographies, I’m usually most interested in a certain period in the subject’s life and will read that bit first, then work backwards and forwards.
And then there is the fiction I return to for comfort. For me that includes a variety of authors, from Ian Rankin mysteries to the Jeeves and Wooster stories, to anything by Jane Austen – really, I have so many “comfort books” I couldn’t list them all. I’ll read anything from a few pages to a few chapters, then put them aside again until next time.