Years and years ago, when I was very young, I read Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls. The book destroyed me. Anyone who’s read it will understand why. To this day, whenever someone tells me that they’re going to read it, I warn them. I remember when I read it that there were pages towards the end that I couldn’t read because I just couldn’t handle the sadness of it anymore. Since that time, I’ve always been pretty good completely reading books I decide to finish; DNF titles don’t count. But two reading experiences since Where the Red Fern Grows make me wonder if it might be okay to tell readers that there are parts of a book they can safely skip so that they can enjoy an otherwise great read.
Exhibit A: Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville
When I was a young English major, my American Literature professor ambitiously included Moby-Dick at the end of an already full syllabus. The closer we got to the end of the novel, the more the professor reduced what we had to read of the leviathan. We still had to read some of the whaling essay chapters. (I’ve heard of some readers who claim to enjoy these). We ended up reading more of the plot chapters and, my dear bookish types, I loved those. Captain Ahab is a fantastically frightening character, who elevates an already ripping yarn into the legendary. The whaling essays killed all the wonderful tension created by the plot chapters—something that is very important to me as a reader. I know full well that the novel as a whole is an attempt to capture whalers’ experiences as a whole, but I just wanted a story about an obsessive man and a wily whale. This experience is probably what set me to thinking that, in some cases, it’s okay to skip bits.
Exhibit B: Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett
I liked this book a lot, but I hated the epilogue. Without revealing too much, I think that the major event contained in that chapter ruins the poignancy of the penultimate chapter. I might have been able to grudgingly accept the epilogue if I thought the characters had behaved consistently. Instead, I had to think about what happened for a long time before I could kind-of-sort-of think of a plausible explanation. I really wish the novel had ended with that next-to-last chapter. I don’t know if I would have followed advice and skipped it if someone had mentioned it, but I do know that I would have liked the book better over all if I had.
I realize that what I’m attempting to argue is controversial. Authors put a lot of thought and effort into creating stories for us. There are reasons for what they chose to put in the story. But I’ve long thought that, once a book gets into my hands, it’s my story to finish. My imagination does the rest of the work. I know full well that some books I read will go in directions that I wouldn’t have guessed or are interested in. Very rarely, as in the evidence cited above, does a book ruin itself by including too much material that kills any joy in reading the story and/or has something that just doesn’t fit and/or just undercuts the entire book and/or is just so emotionally harrowing that it will mess readers up for years (or decades, in the case of Where the Red Fern Grows). In these rare circumstances, I think it’s entirely fair to give readers a heads up so that they’re not disappointed in a book the way I was. After all, if they can have a better reading experience and like 95% of a book, that’s better than having two people who hate a book because of that last 5%. Right?
Have any of you out there read a book that you liked for the most part but hated because of something that could easily have been left out?