By Jodie Cain Smith
With the onset of each year, I begin a new reading challenge. Last year, I promised to read and review one friend’s book each month. I admitted defeat by July. This year, I am off to a much better start. What was my challenge as I chose to accept it? Clear the shelf. In twelve short months I will read every abandoned book in my office.
The cast-offs get a second chance. Why not look for value in every book an agent, publisher, and editor chose to devote time and money? At some point in time, I assigned a value to each and coughed up the cash at the register only to allow it to collect dust. Most importantly, the author, possibly a first-timer as I was in 2014, felt that she or he had to write that particular story at that particular time in life and put his or her name in bold print on the cover.
With the image of my face, presumably crushed if someone were to look at me and say, “I started your book, but never finished it,” I began this year’s challenge. With nearly three abandoned books now in the “finished” pile, I declare their value.
All Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner: I have loved every novel in Ms. Weiner’s vast catalogue until now. This one proved I am not as sympathetic as I thought. The protagonist’s tale of a drug-addicted, suburban wife and mother left me thinking, “For God’s sake, wet blanket, get it together!” Her trials weren’t big enough for me to justify her actions. Along with gaining insight into personal shortcomings, the value I found was to apply the same critical eye to my own protagonists. Will future readers accuse mine of being wet blankets? Are their trials more than drivel and whining, their stakes high enough? Will the reader sympathize?
Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire: This 563 page novel of tiny print and a vocabulary so immense I swear Maguire made up several words, provided new descriptors, inventive sentence structure, and complex storytelling, but I questioned MacGuire’s ending. Maguire’s ending fell flat and felt far too ambiguous for such a dramatic tale. After I turned the final page, a question formed. Should writers bring their stories to satisfying conclusions for the readers’ sakes or let their characters dictate endings no matter audience expectations? For me, I believe the answer lies in knowing and writing my characters so well that the story leads to one definitive conclusion.
A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis: Purchased three years ago as research, I abandoned it after twenty pages because Lewis’ journal entries of the months following his wife’s death are so raw, I couldn’t handle his pain. Now, I’ve returned to it to ensure the grief I speak of in my current project is realistic and respectable of the process. I also feel that out of admiration for his talent, I must finish Lewis’ most personal work.
I challenge each of you to shop your own shelves. Let me know what value you find hidden between the dusty pages of your abandoned books.