Let me start by saying that I'm writing about books today because I just recently added my Goodreads widgit to my sidebar on the right. If you don't know, Goodreads is like a social network about books, kind of the book version of the Netflix friend list. You keep a list of books you have read/are reading/want to read, and you can rate and review them, and then the updates are sent to anybody you've added as a friend. If you like to read but don't have an account, go here to get one. And then add me as a friend.
Anyway, I decided to join Goodreads at the start of 2010, with the intent of finally keeping a list of all the books I read in a given year. So, I started adding books in January 2010. My goal is to read 52 books by the end of the year. So far I am not on track to achieve that goal. We are in the 41st week of 2010, something I learned when I Googled "2010 week numbers" and got a site called the World Budgerigar Organisation, which then led to me wondering what the hell a budgerigar is, which led me to Wikipedia, where I found out that a budgerigar is a kind of parakeet. (It's amazing I get through the day.)
As I was saying, my parakeet-loving friends informed me that we are in the 41st week of 2010. Given my goal to read a book a week, I would need to have read 41 books at this point. I have read 37. I'm about a month behind.
But here's the thing. I don't like thinking of books in terms of quotas I have to meet. That makes my books feel too much like required reading, which is something I'm no longer contending with. You always like something less when you feel like you have to to do it. Additionally, some people have suggested that maybe I should slum it with some really easy books, perhaps of the children's nature, to pad my list. That doesn't seem right either. I want to read the books I like, finish the ones I want to finish, and enjoy them without feeling like they are a homework assignment. But yet, somehow I want to also keep a comprehensive list of the books I've read.
As I said, I don't finish every book I start. I know there are some people who have a fundamental problem with giving up on books. Something in these people's nature compels them to finish every book they start. And that's great. I admire that sort of perseverance. But, I quit some books. When I start to get angry at a book for wasting my time, it's time to quit reading that book.
In an attempt to formally give myself permission to quit reading some books, I added a separate category (or "shelf") on my Goodreads account for "didn't finish." A book goes on the "didn't finish" shelf if I cracked the spine of the book (or electronically cracked it, in the case of books I read on my Kindle) but didn't see it through to the end.
I admit that having the "didn't finish" shelf has forced/shamed me into finishing some books that I might not otherwise finish, which is mostly a good thing. I don't want the unfinished books to take up too big of a percentage of my overall book list. I'm averaging just about a 75% book completion rate, which I think would be more like 50% if I didn't have the Goodreads list. And, as I said, forcing myself to finish a book with a marginal start is mostly a good thing, because a lot of books pick up in the end and I wind up being glad I saw them through to their conclusions.
However, the previous sentence refers only to novels. I am wondering, in the case of non-fiction books, whether it's totally important to read the entire book in order to benefit from the information contained therein. Because, here's the thing: a lot of non-fiction books are padded. Say an author has a great idea, a really interesting idea, for a non-fiction book. However, the author really only has enough information to fill a magazine article or 20/20 segment. Sure, that article or segment would be interesting. I'd totally be into it. I'd tell all my friends about it.
But when the author stretches this one idea into the length of a book, it ends up being repetitive and padded with dumb buzzwords. Sure, it starts out great. Wow, you think as you read the first chapter, this is so interesting. These are some great ideas.
By Chapter 4, you are ready to kill this author. He or she is just repeating the same ideas from the first chapter. Really?! you ask, So you're saying that [insert salient point here]? I loved that idea when it was called Chapter 1!
I think a lot of parenting books fall victim to this padding phenomenon. Obviously, if you can come up with one good idea, just one idea for how to tame the completely baffling phenomenon known as children, you're gonna run with it and turn it into a book. But one idea does not equal 289 pages. Take, for example, Marc Weissbluth's Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. Weissbluth's main point is that "sleep begets sleep." Throughout the chapters of this book, Weisbluth finds several different ways to make this same point, saying things like:
- The more a child sleeps, the more he or she will want to sleep.
- Putting your kid to bed earlier will actually cause him or her to sleep longer.
- If your kid takes a nap, he or she will sleep better at night.
- You might think your child will sleep less at night if he or she takes a nap, but actually the opposite is true.
- Sleep begets sleep when your child is a baby sleeping in a crib.
- Sleep begets sleep when your child is a preschooler sleeping in a bed.
- For crying out loud, sleep begets sleep!
Like parenting books, self-help books are also very padded. Like, for example, Women Food and God, the comma-free title of the book I am currently attempting to read. The author of this book, Geneen Roth, makes the point that we engage in compulsive eating because we hate ourselves. She makes this point over and over and over again, and throws in a bunch of buzzwords like "awareness" and "meditation" and "liposuction." Roth says a lot of your self-hatred is your mother's fault, especially when you have a cruel mother who would give you an alternatively-spelled name like "Geneen." (I hate alternative spellings. Either give your kid a common name, or give your kid an unusual name, but do not give your kid a common name spelled unusually. This dooms your child to a lifetime of saying things like, "No, it's 'Geneen,' with a 'G.' A 'G,' dammit, and two 'e's! Come on, spell it right! Oh for crying out loud, where are those damn double-fudge brownies?!")
My point is, do I have to read the entire book just to get a few good ideas? (Idea #1: Emotional eating is bad. Idea #2: Commas are also bad.)
Another non-fiction book I'm reading is Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life. At 450 single-spaced pages, I wouldn't exactly call this book short, but I am actually enjoying it. Bryson endeavors to give a history of every object in his home, which is a topic I find interesting. However, he is also a very thorough researcher, and he goes off on a tangent about everything. He's the kind of guy who, were he to at some point during he research stumble upon a website about parakeets, would then spend a month researching parakeets and put it in his book, despite the fact that he was attempting to give a history of the toaster.
The result is a book that I probably won't be able to finish in the week I have it from the library, no matter how much I like it. (I only get a week because it's from the "Hot Copies," shelf, where you technically can renew the book for one additional week, except that then you are barred from getting any other book from the Hot Copies shelf during that week, and I usually stumble upon something I can't live without on that shelf, something such as 101 Celebrity Cupcake Recipes.)
Now, here I am questioning whether or not I should be able to include a particular unfinished book on my list of books on a literary social networking site, in order to achieve a random goal I created for myself. This is obviously not an earth-shattering issue. But, my question is, do you have to finish a book in order to benefit from it?