By the sixth page he was brought short with the number four. Or, how far do you read a book to know it is good?

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Summary: How far into a book, by whatever unit you wish to stake that measurement, must you read before you can decide the quality of good or bad? Do negative reviews take longer, or shorter, times than positive ones? We we talking in terms of sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters, or section? One reviewer took one word on page 6. How about you?

BLOT: (13 May 2011 - 11:22:35 PM)

By the sixth page he was brought short with the number four. Or, how far do you read a book to know it is good?

I'll be truthful, Chris Adrian's The Children's Hospital is a book that can't help but seem purposefully quirky. After a flood wipes out the world, a children's hospital floats to the top and tries to go about being as normal as it can. I don't know, you know, if it descends into direct and unrelenting Noah's Ark allegory, or if they meet other floating buildings. Or if they find floating children and try and save them all. All I got is a short blurb. AND, I have J. Landsman's review of The Children's Hospital on Amazon. It's a one-star. There are 12 of those, second in number only to the five-star reviews, which has 22, and almost more than the other—two-, three-, and four-star—reviews combined. This, I think, tells you what you really need to know about the book. Any book with hundreds of a five-star reviews is a bad book. Well, that's not a good mnemonic. No, not true. How about...five-star reviews are cheap [that's better] while actual discourse through competing reviews is invaluable to reader advisory sorts.

Landsman's review, though, is not about the book. By his own admission, it is about the first six pages of the book. Not even about all of those pages. In fact, he chalks up his entire one-star review to a single line, and—in particlar—one word in that line. That word is emphasized below (emphasis mine, and the quotes demarcate the words from the original novel from the review's words (sans quotes)):

On page 6 Adrian describes an encounter between the main character and a bird that's been blown against a window. "Its beady eye caught and held hers, and it opened and closed its mouth four times...."

Landsman goes on to justify his attack on that one word, "four", by saying:

It may seem like the smallest of things in a 600+ page book, but it's a such a perfect example of really bad literary over-writing, I knew instantly I couldn't read this book. Because who's counting how many times the bird opened and closed its mouth? The character? I doubt it—not if she's startled the way she's alleged to be. The author? You bet. Why? Because that's how he thinks you give something reality and significance. Isn't that what someone told him in a workshop or MFA program? Use the small, telling, unexpected detail? But what's meaningful or real about four times? Would three times be less meaningful? How about five times?

What about five times indeed? I mean, why are know, books set in late November when early December is just the same? Or books where characters like the color blue when they could have liked indigo? Why distinguish between anything?

Landsman sets a slippery slope to explain his knee-jerk dislike of the book due to single use of "four"—that by choosing one fact over potential others so that a detail is used to anchor the reader, the writer is overwriting, and therefore we should ignore the other qualities of the book because though the remaining 596 pages might have worthy passages, surely they are "random and accidental" [just in case you missed it: if the author puts in one bad phrase, then the author cannot choose between good and bad and therefore all good phrases must be accidents while all bad phrases are...I guess purposeful overwriting]. So he closed the book, and I can't say I'm surprised because (to ape his own admittance), he seemed kind of prejudiced against it start with. That's not what he says, but I'll assume that's what he means.

Enough about him, let's talk about you. What if you are reading a book, a 615 page book, and you want to say, "I should not read this": how many pages do you need to give that book before you are sure you made the right choice? How much time to be sure? How many words? How deep into the concept? What would it take to say, "The rest is beneath me and I am sure?" Which, to be sure, you never can be.

Some of the best books I have ever read, such as Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, have been almost interminably slow at the start-up. Neal Stephenson loves to write books that you could bail out at about the half-way mark and be sure it was going nowhere, only to find through hearsay that by the end it was some big epic something. Other books start with a strong punch, but find that those first few sentences that shoved their way into the author's mind were the brightest born. Gods in Alabama, with its wondrous first sentence—"THERE ARE GODS in Alabama: Jack Daniel's, high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus."—would have had a hard struggle to keep the momentum going [ultimately, it doesn't]. It is a rare book that starts and ends with the same grasp of itself and has been truly worthwhile all throughout. Something like William Gibson's, "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." By the end of Neuromancer, the gritty poetry is still intact.

So...I am going to say I am not sure. I couldn't tell you my definite point. Sometimes I know. Sometimes I choose to ignore the warning, other times I bail out after a chapter or two. I do not think I have any one system, but I know there has to be someone out there who does. And what system might that be?

Reading Cultue


Written by Doug Bolden

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