After finishing the entire Harry Potter series this summer, I began reading more fiction than normal…normal for me, that is. I will pick up a novel on occasion, but primarily, I stick to nonfiction, mainly history or economics. Yes, I like reading about old dead guys and the dismal science. That’s my idea of a good time.
At any rate, I’ve found that I’m not very good at reading fiction. Okay, maybe I need to restate that. I have a hard time reading fiction. I think this stems from my addiction to nonfiction. With nonfiction, I typically know (or will learn) something about the topic already, and I know that there will be a definite ending to that particular story, even though life does go on after the topic at hand. If I am interested in what happens next, I can usually find another book to fill in any gaps about the topic in order to satisfy any lingering curiosity.
This doesn’t work with fiction. Unless it is an enormous, epic style book or a multi-volume set, most authors leave too many unanswered questions for my taste. So when I finish the book, I’m just frustrated…not the type of frustrated where I can’t wait for the author’s next book. I’m frustrated to the point that I don’t want to read another book by that author because I don’t want to be frustrated again.
Since reading a novel is typically a serious time commitment, I try to choose wisely. What books are other people I know reading? What does Amazon recommend to me based on past purchases? (I have to filter out the children’s books I buy for my kids to keep this one accurate.) What kind of review is the book getting in major publications? You get the idea.
I have read some really good fiction in the past few years. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr was one of the best books I’ve ever read. And obviously, I enjoyed Harry Potter once I finally got around to reading that series. I’ve read several books by Neil Gaiman that I really enjoyed. American Gods is probably my favorite book of his so far. Most recently, I read The Martian by Andy Weir. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I would imagine it’s probably pretty good if they didn’t screw up the story. Unfortunately, more often than not, I just find that I’m disappointed once I finish a fiction novel, especially if the ending isn’t very good. This makes me hesitate to try books by authors I haven’t read previously.
For example, a few years ago I picked up The Goldfinch by Donna Tart. The reviews made it sound like an amazing book…a page turner…storytelling at its best. I hated it. The only reason I finished it (other than the desire complete what I started) was that I was hoping I would eventually get to the good part. It never happened.
Then last year, another book, Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, caught my attention because of the nature of the book. It was historical fiction, and it was getting great reviews. It is a running joke with me that inevitably I have a handful of students every year who believe that the real Underground Railroad was actually a railroad that was underground. Since this is what Whitehead did in his novel, I really wanted to like this book. I didn’t. Again, I found myself waiting for the good part of the book. I never found it.
Here’s the kicker. Both The Goldfinch and Underground Railroad have something in common…besides the rave reviews and me wishing I hadn’t wasted my money. They both won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in their respective years. What I gather from this isn’t so much that these books were bad. It’s that I obviously wouldn’t know great fiction if it smacked me in the face.