An Argument for Literary Perseverance

Nearly every job I’ve ever had I’ve quit for a reason that was, in all reality, rather unsatisfactory. I cleaned pools throughout college and, when told my future sister-in-law was moving to Georgia for work, I decided to quit altogether over the phone that same day, at a pool I was cleaning no less, rather than ask for a single day off. My first real job was as a private school Creative Writing teacher—I quit that too to attend graduate school. I doubt that I need to show anyone my folders upon folders of half finished—okay, I’ll be honest, I barely started—manuscripts and novel ideas to convince them that I have trouble following through. Maybe it’s a generational thing, maybe it’s a deep-seated childhood trauma, or maybe I’m just a loser who can’t go the distance. 

However, there’s always been one aspect of my life that I see it through no matter what, and that’s reading books. I rarely don’t finish a book that I’ve started, even if it takes me far more time than is necessary to complete it. Currently, I’m reading The Physiology of Taste or Transcendental Gastronomy by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. I was put onto this book’s scent by another book I recently read, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. One of these books is an insightful and engaging journalistic look into food, agriculture, nature, and our relationship with each of those areas and how they intertwine. The other is a mid-19th century collection of a Frenchman’s scientific observations and pompous, self-absorbed ramblings. I’ll leave the reader to discern which is which. In light of this, I have asked myself why I’m still reading Physiology, a hyper-outdated and verbose examination of gastronomy, when I could abandon ship and read something that I enjoy more. I could take the cop-out route of an explanation and default to the fact that I had to read a multitude of books and articles that I found demoralizingly uninteresting, at best, in my graduate program, but I think it would be more beneficial for myself and for any reader, present and future, to give three reasons why we should stick with books that don’t titillate our fancies as much as we would like.  

First, and this is no radical statement, it’s very hard to adequately assess something if the lion’s share of the something is not consumed. You can’t judge an album based on one song, you can’t judge a film having only viewed its opening scene, and you can’t evaluate a book properly if all that’s been read is its introduction. There are surely varying opinions on what constitutes an adequate reading in order to evaluate an author’s efforts, but I view this as being anywhere from 85–95 percent of the book. Fiction and non-fiction alike can often meander, get lost in the weeds, and be generally unexciting. However, this also rings true for nearly every experience in life. Often one must walk through block after block of uninteresting cityscape to encounter beautiful church architecture previously unseen; one may spend all day in the forest viewing tufted titmouse after tufted titmouse before one can persist enough to view a red-crested warbler. An unsatisfying journey may yield an explosive conclusion or an irrevocably intriguing discovery. A story may wind with annoying aimlessness, such as I felt while reading Sekret Machines: Book 1 – Chasing Shadows, only to bring the dedicated reader to a wondrous end. A book’s parts can often not be greater than the whole, and the whole can be worth wading through miles of trash. 

Second, stemming from my first argument, all trash is useful in some way. As the tidal wave of DIY “craft” videos that plague our mothers’ Facebook walls demonstrate, humans are, as Andrew Bernard proclaims to Jim Halpert, “able to spin gold out of your crap.” Writers, marketers, teachers, and the common human occupation of storytellers all have the beautiful ability to pick stunning flowers from among the weeds. And, as is often the case, sometimes the weed being presented as a flower is still simply a weed—but the most enthusiastic child wielding a near decapitated dandelion can convince a passerby that they’ve found a marvelous treasure. Even in books that are mind-numbingly boring, one can remove morsels of joy and interest from their tattered and uninspired lines. Like a beachgoer scanning the endless sand with a metal detector, a reader who is always on the hunt for good material is rewarded for keeping their metaphorical metal detector to the ground when it hasn’t beeped in what can feel like a literary eternity. 

Third, finding the fun and joy in utter dross is a valuable skill. I used to be entrenched in the punk music scene, so I am no stranger to claiming that life blows. It’s easier to commiserate with this feeling now more than ever in the midst of a forced isolation, global pandemic which threatens so many who are loved and love. But to hell with everything else if humans aren’t creatures capable of finding something worthwhile in the direst situations. So, too, are we able to find something wonderful in a book slowly melting our eyes from our skulls, and thus this transitory skill weaves its way into each aspect of our lives. Just like finding a reason to share a laugh at a funeral or picking a treasured photo album from the rubble, learning to enjoy terrible writing and storytelling for its own sake is something that we can all benefit from no matter what the state of the world. My grandpa used to tell me that if we aren’t laughing, we’re crying—learn to laugh more at writing that makes you want to cry and the deep, creeping existential dread may just be kept at bay for a little while longer.

While there are certainly pieces of writing not worth reading under all but the most specialized circumstances, books of hate and racism for example (I’m certainly not encouraging everyone to stick through abhorrent and truly repulsive material), I think most books that begin to bore or shutter the eyelids are worth fighting through however slowly—it’s impossible to know what we might find. So, I’m going to carry on through Brillat-Savarin’s meditations, because maybe he has an earth-shattering revelation about wine (in the way only the French can), or perhaps he’ll argue something so outlandish and pseudo-scientific that I’ll be able to milk its humor for years to come, or perhaps he’ll simply make me think in a certain way that I never have before. Take it from me, someone who’s quit more things than I can count—literary perseverance is worth the effort.