Learning to Quit Books

Sinéad Keegan is an Irish-born writer in the final year of her MFA at Kingston and currently writing her first novel. Her short stories and poetry and have been published in several magazines and she blogs at www.sineadkeegan.com. Twitter: @sineadkeegan. She is the editor of No Dead White Men and recently taught a course in blogging and social media for Kingston Writing School.

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In the true spirit of blogging, I am going to make a confession.

It will perhaps come as no surprise that I have always loved reading. I devoured all the assigned books when I was in school. I loved many of them, disliked some of them but read all of them. While my classmates bought Cliff’s Notes for Crime and Punishment, I wrapped myself in Dostoyevsky’s language. When they watched the film of Great Expectations, I sought out more of Dickens’s novels. I read anything and everything I put my hand to and never quit. Real readers don’t quit.

So, for many years now I have lived with the great shame of not having finished Gulliver’s Travels. I was sixteen when it was assigned to me and I hated it. I read Lilliput and just thought it was unbelievably dull. This, from a teenager who counted The Return of the Native among her favourite books.

Until just this year it was the only book I’d ever failed to finish. But I have a new outlook now. I was having a chat with science fiction novelist Christopher Priest this spring when he mentioned that he only reads books that he loves. When I explained my guilt-reading, he squashed the idea firmly. He said that there are a finite number of books that you can read in your lifetime so you had better be sure you enjoy the reading that you do.

Reading had previously seemed an infinite activity. So many books and all the days in the world to spend curled up with them. Suddenly, I was aware of my literary mortality. He had me calculate the number of books I could possibly read if I kept reading at my current pace and lived to eighty. He assured me you slow down as you age, so the number was optimistic. My best case scenario number is 3,000. At first glance, this seems enormous, but surely there are more than 3,000 great books that I would love.

I take Chris’s point. In fact, he’s absolutely right and I’ve quit two books since I had that conversation. But I still hear that nagging voice urging me to persevere. The conflict rages. One of the books I’m claiming to have quit is still sitting on the end table in my “to read” pile with a bookmark at page 212. I’m less than halfway through, but I still devoted hours to struggling through a book that I genuinely dislike. I should have quit at page 1. The problem is that it came highly recommended by a dear friend and excellent novelist. In over a decade, she has never steered me wrong on books, so I tell myself that I just need to give this book another thirty pages or another twenty or just one more chapter.

I tell myself that the recommendation is the problem, but that’s not true. The problem is the guilt. I don’t want to be a person who leaves books unfinished. A reading quitter. So I remind myself that I am only reading the glorious novel I am right now because I have put that other one aside.

Now, before everyone gets all up in arms about the value of reading what you don’t like, relax. I know exactly why I don’t like this book and I’ll try not to do those things in my writing. Proper, intellectual, writer-ly activity done. Now I’m moving on to great literature that I also love. I feel confident I’m learning more from that than I would from wading through another 300 pages of a story and writing that I hate.

So, I give unto you all the permission to read widely, read voraciously, read what you love, quit what you don’t like and to do it all guilt free. Count how many books you hopefully have left in your life and spend that number wisely!

Let us know in the comments section what your book number is and what’s at the top of your “must read” list!

The Jumper Analogy: Unpicking Reading Like a Writer

Emma Strong completed a Creative Writing MA in 2008. After a couple of years off to have two children, she’s now completing the MFA and PGcert. Before motherhood she worked in legal publishing, the youth homelessness voluntary sector and local government.

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Thinking about how to teach a subject while studying it yourself provides an interesting intertwining of perspective (as well as roots in need of urgent attention, a furrow at the top of the nose and a chaotic mound of paper, books and files where our table used to be – there’s method somewhere). During the MA and MFA I’ve loved reading and picking apart books, those recommended by the course and those I’ve loved and been inspired by over the years, in terms of how they might guide me. Now also studying the art of teaching and reading around the pedagogy of creative writing I am conscious of just how intrinsic to studying CW it is to read as a writer. I am also coming up against how tricky it is to explain this skill to some of the undergraduates we’re teaching. It’s more than one person who’s said good writers borrow, great writers steal. We’re all aiming to steal, right? We all want a great palate to steal from; to understand the palate of other writers and how they used it. I want to find a way to illustrate the process of critical analysis. I want my students to learn to do it well. I want to do it better myself.

Going with the idea that a good analogy is often a good start to explanation, I’ve been mulling over a jumper analogy … I’m working on it but I’ll share where I’m up to. Let me know if it works for you.

It is human to spin a yarn for each other. They were doing it in the caves at Lascaux. We’re still doing it now. We love stories. All the stories we ever share evolve apparently around seven archetypal yarns. What kind of yarn are you reading? What kind of yarn are you writing? Does it conform to one of the archetypes? How’s it been spun? Does it make the yarn interesting? Does it push the particular yarn somewhere new? Is it roughly spun and raw or super refined, like cashmere? (Come with me. It’s a jumper analogy. What are jumpers made from? Yarn … boom boom. I’m here all week; still cheap at twice the price.)

The yarn being considered, is it still spooled in a ball, or spooled right out, unravelled and messy, ready for the cats to play with? Or has it been made into something else, such as a jumper? What sort of jumper? What’s the form and structure of it? If it’s been shaped into a twinset does that ruin it?

What about a traditional Aran? It’s pretty amazing to see yarns worked so beautifully to conform to all those age old twisted knots and stitches. Fashion says we need a batwing or an asymmetric sleeve right now. Does that matter? Of all the jumpers you’ve loved before, is there a particular shape you always return to time and time again? Admit it. Most of us have a type. The black turtle neck, the grey slouchy v-neck, the cream twinset, the rainbow striped baggy number, the cobwebbed nearly-a-dress-now jumper bought at Glastonbury?

What about style? How should the neck, shoulders, and cuffs be shaped? Turned back or not? Was it working up to the turtle neck but now it’s ruined? Is it too long or too short? Does the way it floats away at the edges make it? Are the buttons down the front adding to its overall impact or detracting? Are they actually the essence of the piece? What do the stars say? How do they add to the meaning of the jumper? Can a jumper mean something? Yes! How do the stars affect the jumper’s meaning? Why do you think that? Is it influenced by couture or street fashion? Has it been critically acclaimed? Does that affect its meaning for you? Thinking about all the stylistic touches you know, which have you tried to re-create? Which worked/ which didn’t? Which do you repeat and repeat?

What about the language of the jumper: the stitching, patterning and colour? What’s its register and tone? What about those Aran knots? That intricate Fair Isle patterning? That plain black chunky yarn knitted up using only garter stitch? Does it make your year to see 2-ply merino worked in moss stitch into an experimental form? Or do you just want a reliable Miss Marple twinset or an easy going goes with everything M&S romantic comedy? Is garter stitch a doddle, moss stitch unnecessary too-try-hard faff, rib the only way to go?

What about the genre, commercial or not, mode of production and marketing? Is this the first jumper someone at home has ever knitted? Or has it been crafted by an artisan on a far off Scottish isle? Is it conforming to mass demand, machine knitted and mass produced? Is the yarn pure wool or mixed with unnatural fibre? What about the needles? Are there other jumpers out there like this one? How does it compare? Has the knitter knitted other jumpers? How does this one compare? Do you want to knit just like them or is it just the way they use colour that you love? Is this just the sort of jumper you wear or would it look out of place in your collection?

Overall, does it feel like this jumper has a premise, an argument to state? Does it have to have one? Why do you think that? Is it successful? Can you learn from it? Adapt it? Argue it from another angle?

Could this analogy make it easier to unpick a writer’s yarns and learn from them? Or does it just make it trickier to put a jumper on?

BTW: As well as completing my novel, I’d like to poke my finger in the eye of the boring blokes (it’s always a bloke) who lament the proliferation of creative writing courses and the pursuit of them by bored housewives. What’s education for? Did he miss the feminist movement? I’m not bored!

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