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The Clean (Book)Plate Club August 25, 2010

Posted by nrhatch in Books & Movies, Humor, Mindfulness, Writing & Writers.

In my younger years, if I started a book, I finished it.  Period.  No ifs, ands, or buts.

It didn’t matter if I had borrowed the book from a friend, received it as a gift, checked it out of the library, or purchased it for myself:  once started, I read through to the sometimes bitter end.

That is no longer the case.

If an author hasn’t hooked me in the first 25-50 pages, I close the cover and turn my attention to another book . . . without regret.

I remember the first book I gave myself permission not to finish ~ White Oleander by Janet Fitch.  After seeing the movie, I trotted around to the library, checked out the book, took it home, and eagerly started reading.

In short order, I found myself having to back up and re-read lengthy passages, sometimes more than once.  One paragraph required 5 or 6 futile attempts to ascertain what the author was getting at.

The more pages I turned, the more I felt as if I was reading through gauze.

Rather than clear, crisp sentences, Fitch meandered about, dropping clues  to her intended meaning rather than coming right out and saying what she meant.  No one would accuse Ms. Fitch of being a fan of Strunk and White.

A few examples of White Oleander’s purple prose (using quotes from the book cited in reviews on Amazon.com):

* I am hypnotized by keys, thick fistfuls of them, I can taste their acid galvanization, more precious than wisdom.

* I sat at the empty drafting table next to my mother’s, drawing the way the venetian blinds sliced the light like cheese.  I waited to hear what my mother would say next, but she put her headphones back on, like the period after the end of a sentence.

* I press it within my body.  As the earth presses a lump of prehistoric dung in heat and crushing weight deep under the ground.  I hate him…  A jewel is forming inside my body.  No, it’s not my heart.  This is harder, cold and clean.  I wrap myself around this new jewel, cradle it within me.

Many poets out there loved the book.  I did not.  After 57 and 1/2 pages, I gave up (mid-chapter) and returned White Oleander to the library.

Toni Morrison’s Paradise met the same fate a few weeks later ~ dispatched back to the library stacks when I tired of trudging through opaque lyricism that mired the flow of the story for me.

I don’t mind re-reading a poem a time or two to extract its essence (as long as it’s not novella in length), but novels aren’t poems.  When reading fiction, I am disinclined to decipher pages filled with obtuse passages.

This past year, I’ve selected, sampled, and set aside more books than I’ve consented to read cover to cover.  I make no apology for this freedom I’ve afforded myself:

* Unlike turning away (mid-sentence) from a tedious speaker, returning an unappealing book to the shelf unread is not rude.

* Unless someone is holding a gun to my head, or I’m being compensated for my time, I see no reason to keep turning pages that offer me nothing in return.

* No longer a dewy-eyed optimist, I refuse to believe that tedious writing, ill-formed characters, and laborious story lines will  transform themselves if I forge ahead.

* Slogging through swamp water to reach a  distant destination holds little appeal.  I no longer expect to be surprised by a satisfactory ending after a dismal start.

In reading, like life, the journey matters more (to me) than the destination.  I refuse to plod along a rocky road riddled with potholes solely to satisfy my curiosity about an unseen destination which may not be worth the trek.

If I don’t like the way a book tastes after sampling a few bites, I spit it out . . . as discretely as possible.

* * * * *

Are you a member of the Clean (Book)Plate Club?  Do you feel compelled to finish a book once started?  Or do you shove tasteless literary morsels aside and reach for something more appealing to your palate?

Related post: WP Daily Prompt ~Bookworm



1. cindy - August 25, 2010

My mother gave me a rule that I owed it to finish reading a book an author had suffered through writing. It was very liberating for me to reach a stage when I chose to break that rule and close a book that I was not enjoying.
Having said that, I recall enjoying White Oleander. Although I battle with Toni Morrison.

nrhatch - August 25, 2010

Being guided by our own tastes and preferences in food, wine, and the arts is liberating indeed.

Why should a book (we are not enjoying) be more deserving of our time and attention than the book (we will adore) that’s still waiting on the shelf for us to find? An imaginary obligation to its author (Just because we happened to pick it up first) seems a poor justification for finishing what we’ve started.

My grandmother encouraged us to join The Clean Plate Club at every meal ~ because there were starving children in Africa. Just as eating unwanted morsels that landed on my plate (instead of theirs) won’t benefit them one iota, reading a book that doesn’t appeal to me (just because it landed on my plate) won’t benefit the author a bit.

Reading either benefits the reader, or no one. Every book out there wants to be read, but we can’t read them all. It pays to be selective and be dictated solely by our own preferences ~ rather than opinions expressed by others, even if they are prominent talk show hosts. ; )

2. Loreen Lee - August 25, 2010

Well we all have our limitations. Obviously, you stop short of the poetic prose novels of this era. Your misfortune, my dear nrhatch.

nrhatch - August 25, 2010

What an odd thing to say.

Whenever I am able to abandon a tedious, long-winded companion to enjoy the company of livelier, wittier souls . . . I count my blessings.

Loreen Lee - August 25, 2010

As you say, tastes vary, but that may not be the onus of the author to satisfy our taste. The authors you mention obviously have the recognition they deserve. Subjective taste does not necessarily justify critical and negative comments and judgments to what that taste disallows. One can be positive as far as one subjective taste regarding self and self’s interest are concerned, and yet be negative towards others. Technique and fact are of course, something quite different. A person can be ‘wrong’ in their judgments even of aesthetic ‘criteria’. The important thing, I agree, is that we each enjoy our own individual taste, and seek to broaden our scope of what is essentially ‘beautiful’.

nrhatch - August 25, 2010

I would never ask an author to abandon their writer’s voice to satisfy my taste in books. Nor should authors ask me to abandon my reading preference solely to satisfy their desire for additional attention.

I enjoyed reading the comments on Amazon about both Ms. Fitch and Ms. Morrison. Many readers feel both authors have received far more recognition than they deserve. Include me in that camp.

3. aardvarkian - August 25, 2010

I tend to finish books now. I was at a stage some time ago when I lost interest in reading. Luckily enough it passed over quite quickly. I now have over a dozen books that I started, yet to finish

nrhatch - August 25, 2010

I never lose interest in reading . . . as soon as I finish (or abandon) one book, I pick up the next.

Books have been my steadfast companions through life.

4. Carole - August 25, 2010

I read for information; it has always been so. That’s why I have always loved biographies, although they must be well-written for me to read to the end. I agree, no slogging through because of some unwritten rule. A bit of trivia: my “starving children” were in China.

nrhatch - August 25, 2010

I love reading biographies ~ the last I read, Agatha Christie. What a woman.

In the 4th-8th grades, I devoured biographies on Florence Nightengale, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Helen Keller, Madam Curie, Da Vinci, etc. What a treat to peer into their amazing lives.

Now that you mention it, China may have been used on occasion with us as well. : )

5. Paula - August 25, 2010

Ah, Carole, and ours were the “starving Armenians,” thanks to my grandmother, who remembered the times of Armenia’s troubles with Turkey.

My mother later taught us that rather than clean our plate, to watch that we serve ourselves only what we could comfortably eat – very good advice, and thus avoids wasting food. You can always have more if you need it, but you cannot put back what once is taken!

As far as finishing books goes, I have never finished a library book that I couldn’t “get into” within the first 100 pages or so – I give books a bit more of a chance than you, Nancy – but not much! There have been several over the years that have failed to meet my “rules of engagement.” However, the books I actually invest in and buy, I always finish, just because I hate to think I have wasted money (apparently wasting time is not on my list of absolute don’t’s :-D). I am generally careful to buy only those authors I am confident of. These days I read almost exclusively for pleasure, although that does not mean it is all fiction – as I find many text-type books very absorbing, and I enjoy learning (but I also learn from fiction!).

My biggest problem reading came in school when I HAD to read certain books (fiction or otherwise) that I simply could barely slog through – having to read, re-read, and re-re-re-re-read many pages to hopefully grasp whatever I was supposed to get from them. My first memory of that sort of reading was with, I am ashamed to say, Homer’s “The Odyssey.” Maybe it was the translation – I don’t know – but I swore that if I read about ONE MORE F’n ROSY FINGERED DAWN, I was going to strip naked, pull out my hair, and then jump off the highest bridge I could find – at SUNSET – I don’t think I ever wanted to see dawn again! 😀

I have gotten a bit more mature, maybe, but I to this day have never picked up or touched a copy of “The Odyssey.” So much for my classics education. Beowulf was better than that, however! Oh! And so was “The Iliad!”

nrhatch - August 25, 2010

Ha Ha! You could get the Cliff Notes if you feel you’re missing out on The Odyssey. : )

Your mother gave good advice ~ take just enough, not too much.

One reason SO MANY books lately have been abandoned by me is that we inherited them when we bought this place furnished. The place was littered with Danielle Steel’s “Stainless Steel” heroines and Harlequin’s Destiny’s Desire and Fiona’s Fate.

Rather than load them up and give them away unopened, I gave each a glance before relegating them to the DONATE pile. : )

6. Paula - August 25, 2010

Hmmm. . .so you are not a fan of “bodice rippers.” Guess I’ll strike that off my lift of gifts to send you on your birthday, Christmas, etc.

As far as “The Odyssey” goes, I nix the Cliff Notes as well – my associations with that particular book are too disturbing and vivid! I will say, however, that some of the books I have cast aside in the past as being “impenetrable,” I have been able to read and enjoy at a later date. So I do hang on the paperbacks, (hasn’t happened to me yet on a hardback I’ve bought – I’m very selective with those!), I have purchased but not finished. I won’t give them away until I have read what I bought (and I only married a Scotsman, that habit doesn’t come naturally! – and no ethnic slur is intended!).

Also, when I give a book away, I like to give away ones I can recommend, and since I generally give away only what I don’t like, that is difficult for me – I haven’t got many people I know that I would wish such things upon! That being said, there is something to be said for charity boxes – there must be some people I don’t know who would love to read the schlock that I don’t! So, you can anonymously donate those bodice rippers and other such things with a clear conscience. (Not that it isn’t anyway!)

nrhatch - August 25, 2010

I have given away books that I did not enjoy (or finish) . . . if I knew the recipient would enjoy them:

“Hey, this book doesn’t do it for me, do you want it?”

Most of the bodice rippers left behind in the villa have been donated to Goodwill.

I buy non-fiction books with regularity. I borrow novels from the library so that I can taste them for FREE!

7. Agatha82 - August 25, 2010

Well done Nancy, seriously, life is too short. I suffered through reading The Historian and some other hyped novel, about an evil vine that is alive…can’t even remember the name. The Historian had been hyped so much “it’s got Dracula in it” blah blah blah…oh god, I should have stopped reading the thing, but I had actually paid for it instead of getting it from the library. Needless to say, after I suffered reading it untill its conclusion, I took it to a charity shop for some other unfortunate soul to suffer through.
Now, I basically only read book blurbs at a book shop (or check what Amazon says) – If I am not captured by the book blurb, that’s the end for me.

nrhatch - August 25, 2010

I expect that someone who selects your cast-offs in the charity shop will feel delighted to adopt them. : )

Art and Literature, like Beauty, lie in the eye of the beholder.

Agatha82 - August 25, 2010

Indeed and there is nothing wrong if you don’t like someone’s style 🙂

8. Judson - August 25, 2010

I had this same problem with “Cold Mountain” … I forced myself to finish it, but found reading it to be extremely laborious. And I certainly agree with Agatha82 and her description of “The Historian”!

— Judson

nrhatch - August 25, 2010

There are books that grab my attention from page 1, and hold my attention throughout ~ Jane Austen and Charles Dickens come to mind.

The Red Flag for me these days is having to read and re-read passages . . . without any “payoff” through a hidden gem.

Austen, Dickens, and Jonathon Swift require back-pedaling at times to unearth hidden nuances . . . but the effort is almost always rewarded with a good hearty laugh. ; )

9. Paula - August 25, 2010

Tastes really do differ, as evidenced by Agatha82 and judson: I really loved The Historian even (I’m not at all a vampire fan), and Cold Mountain – well, let’s just say that the cover is falling off, having been read over and over again. I love the spare prose and evocation of the area where we now live, in the shadow of the real Cold Mountain!

At the same time I recognize that there must be many out there who can’t get enough Homer (and I don’t mean Simpson – who I rather like!)!

nrhatch - August 25, 2010

That’s the focus of this piece.

Exercising our FREEDOM to pick and choose from abundant literary works to find those that resonate with our souls, rather than obediantly following the opinions of others about what we SHOULD (or should not) read.

BTW: I rather like Homer Simpson too! Doh!

10. booksphotographsandartwork - August 25, 2010

I hate to name names but The Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey was the most boring thing I have ever tried to read. I kept waiting and hoping for it to get better, to be something really wonderful but it never happened. I felt like a chore had been cast aside when I let it go.

nrhatch - August 25, 2010

There is a writer in you: “I felt like a chore had been cast aside when I let it go.” Perfectly put.

Reading should be a pleasure, not a chore (unless it’s required reading for class). The trick is to match the right book with your mood.

I’m not familiar with the Island of Lost Maps or Miles Harvey, so your secret’s safe with me. I love the title and expect that I would have been tempted to put it in my “to be read” basket as well.

11. souldipper - August 25, 2010

Nancy, fun reading about your reading habits. I have been wildly out of sync with the world on many books and right in there with the masses on some others. However, I notice that my reason for loving a “masses favorite” is often different from those reported.

What matters is that friends whose taste I appreciate continue to suggest books. I read what I want and sometimes I surprise the daylights out of myself when I thoroughly enjoy a book that I would not have suspected would captivate me. I do love being fooled.

nrhatch - August 25, 2010

Being surprised is always a pleasure. : )

One series I expected NOT to like, but loved . . . Harry Potter. My nieces and nephews encouraged me to give it ago. Glad they did. Delightful reads.

I just wish J.K.Rowling hadn’t killed off Dumbledore ~ or, if he had to die, that she resurrected him somehow in the 7th book. A magic spell that wore off, or something.

Alas, she chose not to consult with me. ; )

12. You Were Born That Way - August 27, 2010

The older I get, the ruthlesser I get. It feels good to stop at the first sign of pain.

nrhatch - August 27, 2010

YES!!!! I have become “ruthlesser” too! (Great word, that.)

I have reached the point in my life when I know that I can never hope to read even 10% of the books out there . . . so I am absolutely determined to enjoy the ones I do take the time to read.

Thanks for stopping by. I’ll check out “You Were Born That Way” soon.

13. Lisa (Woman Wielding Words) - June 26, 2011

I so agree with you about White Oleander. I love some books that have a more poetic tone to them–but only those handled by a true master. i cannot slog through tedious attempts at creating more meaning when the message would be much clearer without the complex language.

nrhatch - June 26, 2011

Yes, exactly. When the poetic tone adds to the depth of the writing, without detracting from the story line, a lovely flow is relaxing and peaceful.

In contrast, when frilly writing causes readers to get mired down deciphering images that don’t even make sense . . . it’s just distracting.

14. Barbarann Ayars - June 28, 2011

A challenge of interest is to leave out the key word and leave in the description. For instance, “Crane” Never say the word. Just describe. This is one small test applied to book purchases. If by 20 pages the thing is not off the ground, I start looking for the why.

Sometimes, though, my demand for getting red meat means I missed all the flavor, texture, intent and purpose of the meal and then miss the whoever point.

Reading takes time. Read James Baldwin, who takes time to say it well. He is a master of the English language, stringing his words like pearls on a prized necklace, a thing I want to wear even to bed….where I often take him.

This rush to get to the end, browbeating the writer taking too long to get me there is intensified by such easy Access to inexpensive books, I find. Thus it makes me a poor reader, which is not justified by accusing the writer.

nrhatch - June 28, 2011

Thanks for your comment, Barbara.

There is no one right way to write or read ~ it depends on the reader and what they are looking for.

I don’t care for extraneous details . . .

I prefer writing that is distilled down to the bare essence. Facts and life philosophy interest me. Too many details about what places and people look like make me start skimming across the page looking for substance ~ no matter how beautiful the words have been strung.

When writing, I almost never discuss the color clothes people are wearing, whether the carpet is green or pink, or what designer handback they’re carrying. Instead, I tend to focus on “mental” states to set the stage.

They walked into a bar and smoked a cigarette is enough of stage setting for me.

At that point, I want to know why they are there, what they are thinking, and how they are interacting with each other . . . without much embellishment.

I’m not saying that details are unimportant to everyone. Some people enjoy poetic prose. I’m just not one of them. I feel like I’m wading through the swamp when writers include too much detail about the environment or the actors actions.

15. Hedwigia - June 16, 2013

Interesting discussion – I enjoyed thinking about what I read, and what I like and don’t like in books. One that really bugged me recently was Tiger Hill by Sarita Mandana. I quite enjoyed the story and the setting, but the overly flowery language drove me crazy. Plus the lack of research that described a bamboo flower as though it were an orchid. Trivial to many readers, but it ruined the story for me.

nrhatch - June 16, 2013

Good points. Once I see that an author has not done the necessary research, I tend to lose interest. One writer confused right “intuitive” brain behavior with left “analytical” brain behavior throughout the book. Probably too many things on his mind. :mrgreen:

16. bluebeadpublications - June 16, 2013

I absolutely hate Steinbeck’s The Pearl. Makes me what to clean my house rather than read.

nrhatch - June 16, 2013

I’ve never been a fan of Steinbeck . . . or of cleaning house. 😀

17. chickpiggy - June 17, 2013

I used to do the same thing, read a book to the end. I am wiser now 🙂

nrhatch - June 17, 2013

Finishing books in our “younger years” enabled us to become more discerning readers. We know what we like.

And what we don’t. 😀

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