Monday, June 4, 2012

"Page turner" is not a compliment

Publishers and book reviewers believe that describing a book as a "page turner" is to compliment the author. It may be intended as such. In fact, it is the opposite. The term implies reader dissatisfaction with the page currently in focus. It implies the reader wants to get to the last page as quickly as possible. Book reviewers too often describe a book as "a quick read." The author would hardly be flattered.

 "Yet how many people there are who read as though some prize awaited them when they turned the last page! They do not wish to read a book; they want to have read it -- no matter how. The prize they seek is to have done with the book at hand." -- Robertson Davies in A Voice from the Attic.

One of the publishers in a writer's market guides suggests works in which 10,000 words might be read in forty minutes. I doubt anyone reading a (good) book at that pace will get the message, feel the style or revel in the vocabulary and sentence structure of the work. Needless to say, few best-sellers are blessed with these characteristics. They are the page turners.

Are good books designed to be read as quickly as possible? Or intended by the author to offer ideas, thoughts and observations worth mulling over? The page should be turned only in the hope of continuing the intellectual adventure. A book should be read with the same care with which the author wrote it.

Woody Allen described the results of a speed-reading course. "They taught us to read down the centre of the page. I read War and Peace in an hour. It was about Russia."

Regardless of the subject matter, a good book deserves attention, an honest perusal, and a mind-stretching thought. Such a book can be read only with pencil in hand. The readily erasable marks indicate important passages, excellent turns of phrase, or valuable insights. After the last page is turned, these markings are reviewed, and the noteworthy ones indexed on the inside back cover, or on a separate sheet of paper.

One finishes A Voice from the Attic with unbounded desire to preserve such incisive turns of phrase as: a strongly developed sense of grievance; a victim of an unresolved mental quirk; injustice collectors; creeps like a stain through the fabric of their lives; filled with undigested anger; gnawing on the bone of contentment. Each idea to be relished, no page turner, this book.

François, Duc de la Rochefoucauld, composer of maxims and epigrams wrote, "I am fond of all kinds of reading, especially where there is something to train the mind and toughen the soul. Above all, I find very great enjoyment  in sharing my reading with an intelligent person. In doing so one can continually reflect upon what is being read, and such reflections form the basis of the most delightful and profitable conversation."

Rochefoucauld and Davies would have had great conversations. Perhaps they are.

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