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100-Page Book Club

September 30th, 2005 by dk

Every now and again people are surprised to learn that I don’t read many books. A long evening of reading for me is a Bijou movie with subtitles. (These films — one mustn’t call them “movies” — are never macho shoot-em-ups where men grunt and spit and words hardly matter. They are invariably the probing psychodramas that Americans won’t watch unless the actors speak in non-English. For slow readers like me, each interchange prompts fear that I won’t make it through the paragraph before the next response is posted. I leave after 90 minutes feeling like I just retook the SATs. Subtitled movies — sorry, “films” — should be clearly labeled, as if that would help chronic non-readers! It’s like all the fine print they include on ads for reading glasses. It’s just wrong.)

I don’t know why my non-reading should be surprising. I do believe we’re in the post-literate age, but nobody has found a polite way to say so. In fact, I’ve come to believe my automatic disavowal of all conventional wisdom probably flows from an inability to keep up with said wisdom. I read slow and think fast, so it’s always been more efficient for me to make stuff up than to try to keep up with what other very smart people are thinking about any particular subject.

It’s especially a problem when I’m invited to be in a book club. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a book club is a group of people start out liking each other and then meet each month to feel threatened by one another via a reading assignment that makes everyone glad they are no longer in high school. Most people don’t finish a book before the club meets, but admitting same is not allowed, lest everyone be robbed of the sport of guessing who did and who didn’t read the book. Feigning knowledge we don’t possess is, after all, the main skill we gained from all that schooling, way back when. So book clubs do live up to their claim of “continuing education,” if only in the most scandalous interpretation.

I believe it should be admitted that not every book that one starts is worth finishing. What’s more, I believe the blame for each such occurrence should rest squarely on the shoulders of the writer, not the reader. (Granted, there are intervening circumstances always worth considering, but if the author’s not in the room, it seems cleanest just to blame him or her for the misfortune at hand.)

We enter into a contract with an author when we purchase or borrow a book, but that’s the beginning of the contract, not the end of it. If they do their job (write good words), I’ll do my job (turn the page). If I stop turning the pages, I say that’s the writer’s fault, not mine.

The book club I’d like to join would obligate its members to read the first 100 pages of the chosen volume. If you want to quit after 100 pages, blame the author and quit already. If you want to continue, good for both of you. But after 100 pages, guilt needn’t be a factor. If anyone in the club finished the book, they can tell you what you missed, and if nobody ventured past page 100, then you have consensus that the book failed.

What matters is that you get to count it as a book you’ve read, since you did your part.

Give me permission to quit after 100 pages, and you know what? I’ll read more books. There are many books I’d risk 100 pages on, but that’s not how we read books, is it? Once we crack the cover, the stakes are clear: finish or fail. Given those terms, better not to start.

There’s another reason to consider 100 pages plenty. It’s all many writers need or want. Many books that I have read petered out after the first third, probably right around the century mark. What does an author do with a 100-page manuscript? Sell it in three installments to a magazine, if they’re lucky. But usually that author is doing exactly what the readers will do later: keep plodding along, stretching things out until it’s an acceptable 200+ pages. Everybody loses.

Does it not strike anyone else as odd that since pamphleteering went out of vogue 100 years ago, no expression of human thought has emerged that is larger than a New Yorker piece and shorter than a book? has recently announced they will be offering iTunes-style booklets: mini-books distributed and priced exactly like single-song mp3 files: 49 cents for an electronic download. They are calling them Amazon Shorts.

I hope it catches on, because we know there are many mediocre books that would be very fine booklets. And I can only say it had better catch on before voice recognition software becomes so accurate that would-be authors can forego the chore of typing.

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  • 1 Donovan Mack Oct 1, 2005 at 12:20 pm

    You are one weird dude. That — and the above essay — is why it’s absolutely essential that you show up for the initial meeting of this new book club Wednesday at Rogue Brewpub on Olive (not Charnelton). I’ve forwarded your piece to the other three guys who plan to be there. This will put them on notice that, should we all agree to participate, this won’t be just any old book club, not with members like you. By the way, if you know anyone (let’s keep this a guy thing for now at least) who’d get a kick out of joining a book club, bring him along.