Books are strange things. Sometimes they grip you tighter than your great aunt with her inhumanly strong grip for her diminished size/advanced age (maybe that’s just me). Other times, they sink a hook into you, reel you along a few chapters, and then lose you with one poor flick of the pen. Recently, I had been slogging my way through a book I quite liked, but could never get excited to continue reading. I’ve since decided to drop it.
The book is Life is a Wheel by Bruce Weber. I first heard about it on an episode of On Point, and I was taken aback by the very idea of a pan-American bicycle ride. I had honestly never heard of people doing such a thing – I’m not much on bicycling. To the idea’s credit, it inspired me to finally go out and buy my first bicycle and learn to ride it. That’s a project still in the works though.
At times, I really loved the book. By day, Bruce Weber works for the New York Times as an Obituary writer. The story of his trip across the continental United States by bike is accented by personal stories from his life. They add both background and help paint a picture of why he felt compelled to make this trip a second time later on in his life.
It’s not exactly the sort of book I read often, and I suppose that’s why I have fallen out of love with it. Still, with only half of the book finished, I learned a lot about bicycling and more about life. One quote in particular sticks out to me now:
“I’m struck by the conflicting needs of a traveler: to soak up as much as you can and eventually to get where you’re going.”
Though it’s obviously a quote contextually about traveling the United States, I think it’s a great metaphor for why I love to read. Like Bruce Weber, I too am struck by similar issues, though instead of bicycling Vietnam as he recounts in Life is a Wheel as well, my travel usually comes from the adventures I read about in books. Even a journey unfinished can result in a lot of quality exercise. It saddens me to not finish a book, but it would sadden me even more not to have learned something from the few pages I did read.
I am not the sort who finishes every book I start. There are a wide array of pet peeves that can stop me. For example, I don’t even bother with any Fantasy novel that starts off with a ton of unpronounceable pronouns. I personally believe that mythology and background should spring organically, not be pounded into your brain before the journey has even started.
Other books I deeply regret not finishing, though I definitely was too bored to continue. My classic example is Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, the science fiction novel that gave me the word ‘grok’, and then failed to do anything else for me. Compared to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, a book I absolutely adore even now, Heinlein’s other work tends to put me to sleep.
Similarly, I got lost reading The Lord of the Rings and never looked back. I absolutely loved The Hobbit, but Tolkien’s sense of detail combined with his epic history really made a lengthy trilogy seem like running an actual marathon. Compared to something more modern, such as A Song of Ice & Fire, it’s difficult to imagine ever reading The Lord of the Rings, despite the respect I have for its author.
Not all books go unfinished forever, though. I must’ve started and stopped reading Where Sweet the Late Bird Sings three or four times before finding the moment where it clicked and everything fell into an enjoyable experience. I suppose that’s the trickiest thing about consuming any kind of media, but especially books. Sometimes you recognize the quality of the book, but you know you aren’t ready to read it yet; you need to be in the right mind, the right place, and the right time.
There are also books that I am glad I read when I did, as I know I would hate them now. As a young teen, I maintained a steady diet of Dragonlance and other Dungeons & Dragons-based fantasy novels. I loved the first two Dragonlance trilogies especially, but my older self has a more discerning palate. Though the imagination, creativity, character building, and world building are certainly there, those types of books still boil away to pure adventure. In my older age, I want more and more of the things I read to teach me something or give me the tools to explore some fascinating idea. Adventure is not the enemy of rumination and philosophizing, but a focus on its quicker pacing and full-on action sequences often leaves little for either.
I’m sad to give up but it is time to move on. I have yet to decide on my next book, but it’ll either be something a bit more fantastic than bicycling or a bit more serious. Either way, it’s excited to look forward to reading something again.