Recently while catching up with an old friend in Seattle, we found ourselves wandering and gabbing inside the Elliot Bay Bookstore, a lovely independent bookstore on Capitol Hill that reminded me of Powell’s in Portland – yet with a much lovelier cafe and more peaceful environment. It was my first time in the store, and my friend, Ethan, told me that the “staff picks” section is always superb. After seeing many intriguing suggestions for future reads, I found myself, and our conversation, settling on books that we had left behind, intended to read, or had been told to read and had never gotten around to. Sitting on the top of the shelf was Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things.
Over the last year I have picked up and set down this book more times than I care to admit. (Spoiler alert for novel content.) The first hundred or so pages deal with the father of the true main character, Alma: Henry Whittaker is a rather unlikable fellow all through the book yet can be somewhat sympathetic with his rags to riches trajectory. He is a demanding, ambitious-at-the-cost-of-love-and-those-around-him type of character, but the real story begins with the daughter. Alma is like her father: as demanding, ambitious-at-the-cost-of-love-and-those-around-her type, yet she is also overwhelmingly well-educated (did I mention the story really begins a hundred pages in?).
The book then tells you about her lavishly harsh childhood, her family’s new wealth in a young America, her painfully aloof and well-mannered adopted sister, her strict and emotionally distant Dutch-immigrant mother, her solace found in botany, science, and education, her painfully detailed personal sexual awakening as an adult, and her late-in-life marriage to who I only could describe as a gay self-believed messiah.
I realized that as I gave a synopsis of the book to Ethan, of what I had read at least, it sounded an awful lot like misdirection: my retelling was full of potential – a gay messiah!? – yet when I think on my time reading, the novel was mostly just uncomfortable and dull. There’s a problem when the fascinating parts of a work of fiction come in the form of the botanical sciences – which Alma researches as part of the her family business and her refuge in botany. Yes, the moss growing and plant research – her life's work – were the most interesting parts, because they read as believable in the real world, even if they weren’t actually true. They carried a certain credibility within their descriptions, and gave more life to the story than the characters did. Perhaps it was because each major character was too much a paragon of their traits: Alma was too driven in all of her actions and thought, Henry was too arrogant and condescending, her mother was too strict, her sister was too prim and proper. It was as if there were no room to find their nuances or to read into their humanity. Almost three hundred pages into the novel, I put it down once again with no intentions of picking it back up.
Sadie L. Trombetta of Bustle has put together a cute list of admitting when it’s time to let go of a book. In the list, she states:
There are plenty of times that it's important to push through a difficult or boring book — an academic text that's relevant to your life, a classic you've never read, a book you have to write a paper on — but that doesn't mean you have to finish every book you've ever started. A committed, borderline obsessive reader myself, I always feel guilty when I don't make it to the end of a book, but over the years, I've learned that, much like dating, there are too many fish in the sea — or, in this case, books in the library — to get stuck with one that doesn't make you happy.
I read three other books while I tried to read The Signature of All Things – another sign, according to Trombetta, to put a book down.
It’s funny, because I’ve listened to Elizabeth Gilbert speak in person and find her to be incredibly magnanimous, intelligent, and thoughtful. I so wanted to like this book because of my impressions of her, yet every time I was drawn into the story of Alma Whittaker I was put right back off. It was like reading the ebb and flow of the tide, as it goes in and out, so did my interest.
Another book (series) I so wanted to enjoy was The Lord of the Rings trilogy – I resented reading the books but loved the films (well, minus Frodo in both incarnations.) The movie and the books were something all of my friends were talking about or seeing or ranting and raving about, and I couldn’t be left out. I’ve never read so many pages describing a mountain – specifically the Misty Mountains – that in the grander scheme of things is but a small piece of the main story. The Two Towers is very clearly in my mind the first book I ever skipped entire chapters of – well except the Bible but that’s just common sense for a kid – and caused a strange feeling of shame in me. What if I missed something actually interesting? Like the development of a character or a death? (Those Ents though. Those are some boring trees.) The Return of the King has the driest war of them all, and it was as if Ben Stein of the Clear Eyes commercials – popular back when I was reading the series – was narrating the battles to me.
Unsurprisingly, a list put together by Goodreads, called “What Makes You Put Down a Book?” has some of the most abandoned classics and current literature that includes both The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love. In starting this conversation with Ethan and with my own reflection, I realized there are very few books I’ve left behind, never to crack their spines again. It takes a significant amount of drudgery for me to stop a book. I’ve not finished books series because there were simply too many, or I grew out of their style, but very, very, few books mid-story.
This is what it comes down to, if reading does not offer you something in the form of education, enrichment, or entertainment, then just put it down (or if one of these categories just isn’t enough to keep reading). Book guilt be damned. The Signature of All Things felt like it had the education part down, but without picking up a book on 1800’s botanical sciences to compare, I couldn’t be certain.
Peter Wild of The Guardian, wrote on the book selection process and how essentially:
we're all book snobs, whether we admit it or not. Choosing one book over another is a kind of snobbery. It's all about our choices. The sad thing is that those choices sometimes, possibly frequently, let us down. Whether we regularly abandon books or not, we all, from time to time, find ourselves lifting our heads from the book (or screen) we are reading, to gaze out of the window and sigh. This book wasn't what we hoped it would be. But then there's the hope, isn't there? That the next book – or the next book – or the next book – will be worth every bit of time we invest.
I may have given up on The Signature of All Things or entire chunks of the The Lord of the Rings, but I haven’t given up the feeling of hope that comes with reading great literature. Those lines or stories that inspire, educate, or make you laugh – those lines or stories that stay with you.
So, what are you proud of finishing? And what are you grateful to have left behind?
In contrast, here is a rather glowing review on NPR about the The Signature of All Things, and one I couldn’t disagree with more. And here is that illuminating Goodreads infographic.