‘To read without reflecting is like eating without digesting.’ Edmund Burke
I’ve read a lot of novels lately with a gripping plot, that compulsive unputdownable thing. I’m a sucker for a thriller, especially the ones that creep along glacially, gathering pace towards a shocking reveal. But I’m starting to lose the thrill. I’ve got twist-fatigue.
You know how it happens. You hear the chat as the latest ‘Girl In Trouble’ is raved about on Twitter and get sucked in. It sounds like a genuinely new angle or an original set-up. You’re excited.
Three pages in, there’s a shallow comparison. The narrator’s point of view slips a bit but maybe that’s intended. The dialogue is flat. But the narrative drive races on and by now you’re reading one sentence in three. It gets to the emotional heart of the story and you think, yes, this is it. The point where the author delivers on the promise on the cover, shows you an experience so vivid you could be there. Something that lets you be someone else. Something real. And it doesn’t happen.
Why not? Because the story doesn’t need it. You don’t need to get under the skin of the characters to read on. They don’t need to teach you anything, challenge you or give you pause for thought. So long as there is a live and present danger, you’ll keep reading. There should be no conflicted feelings, for them or for you, to slow things down. It matters only that the characters keep moving forward, fire-fighting their way through the plot, to keep you engaged. Like a mild contagious fever, leaving you spent.
Unputdownability sounds like a good thing but when you look at what it actually means, it’s not. Getting to the end shouldn’t be an end in itself. If it is, you can just skip to the last page. Call me impatient but if all that’s keeping me reading is the desire to find out what happens, that’s what I do.
There are other books that keep me compelled over days and weeks and they deliver the biggest emotional pay-off when it comes, a happy consequence of an honest, uplifting, beautifully written book, with a character you can’t forget. You need time apart to understand them, to think about their dilemmas and learn from their mistakes. Otherwise, what is the point in spending all that time with the book in your hand?
I get that the unputdownable thriller is about escapism, filling up weekends that would be a bit flat, or train journeys that would be frustrating. They’re easy to dip in and out of and return to if interrupted, the flip side of their very compulsiveness. But a book can be so much more than a race to the end. Unless the end is truly explosive, that way lies disappointment.
Like a late-night takeaway, or that third glass of wine, it promises satisfaction and delivers nausea. You rush through at the speed of thought, skimming and skipping to get to the pay-off, then crash and burn at the limp, unsatisfying end. If it’s predictable, you feel cheated, and if it’s too twisty, misled. Because the only thing keeping you reading was the cheap thrill of the ride.
Give me a putdownable book anyday. The kind of prose that has you lingering over the words, saying them slowly to hear their delicious music, savouring the unexplained mysteries, the surprising ideas. These are the books you return to because of the feelings they arouse, the sublimation they bring, the very seduction of caressing their pages. Putting them down reluctantly. Thinking about them when apart. Longing for the time to read again. Consciously coupling.
If a book is like a lover, you want a long, powerful astonishing enigma rather than a bragging one night stand. You want to wake up in the night saying the words over in your head, not wake late and hungover with a bleak sense of guilt and self-delusion.
Life’s too short for fast, forgettable books. I’m going back to the slow burn beauties that weave truths and make me glad to be alive. When I pick them up. And when I put them down.