Friday, January 7, 2022

How I Stopped Throwing Books by Josh Stallings


View from my desk

Q: When reading a book, how long do you give it to grab you before giving up?

A: There is a time and space for most any book. When I was much younger and considerably more touchy I would hurl books at my bedroom wall. 

“No good?” Erika would say without looking up from what she was reading. I would give logical (I thought) reasons for my dislike of the text.

Over the years I’ve come to see that I react to a book for multiple reasons.

1) Book just isn’t my cup of tea. 

My wife likes Caol Ila single malt, I like Topo Chico mineral water. Anything as subjective as taste can’t be declared good or bad, it’s personal. My first dram of Laphroaig tasted like Listerine, a few years later it became smoky heaven in a glass. Then thirty years ago I realized I had to give up drinking or embrace a short life full of handcuffs and regret.

2) A book isn’t my cuppa, at this moment.


Taste changes over time. A book I don’t like today, may be just the book I fall in love with tomorrow. So I may stop reading after one page. I try not to write the book off for all eternity. I remember my son Jared at 10 asking me “Why can’t I see The Wild Bunch?” He knew it was an important film to me. I explained “You’re too young, if you see it now you’ll steal the experience from yourself of seeing it the first time when you’re ready for it.”

“I am ready.” He said, but I held my ground. 

When he was 14 I took Jared to see a restored print at Grauman's Chinese Theater. He got it. We had a great chat about Sam Peckinpah’s film-making style and his views on honor. We loved Pike’s line, “When you side with a man, you stay with him! And if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal, you’re finished! We’re finished! All of us!”

3) I’m in editor mode, so everything sucks.

When I’m editing a manuscript my brain switches from dreamy creative into hyper critic. I’ve told friends, “Don’t give me your WIP right now, I’ll hate it. I’ll either think it’s better than anything I can write, or worse, in either case I won’t like it.” 

Edit mode makes me a better writer, but a bad reader.

4) I’m in first draft mode, where my needs are very specific. 

When I was writing early drafts of Young Americans I could only read books written before 1976, the year the book is set in. I needed to keep my perspective in that time. I read newspapers from 1976. I listened to Bowie and Donna Summer. So if you’d handed me a modern book to read I might have chucked it. 

I also need to stay away from powerful voices when writing. Powerful, is a completely personal thing, meaning voices that I lean towards, and can change my own voice. James Crumley is fantastic, but reading him will pull my work into his cadence. I love Tom Waites, but can’t listen to him or my work takes on a be-bop vibe. On the other hand Jamie Mason has one of my favorite voices, but she writes in a completely different style from me, so I can read her without fear of it pulling my voice off  course. I have loved John Steinbeck since I was a teenager, but I have no fear of it changing my voice. I stay away from Hemingway when writing.


A page, a chapter, until I realize this isn’t the time for me and this book to meet up. I am aware I may never be at the right time and place to read some books. That doesn’t make them bad or poorly written. 

I’m trying to not define myself publicly or privately by what I don’t like. I’m trying to not yuck anyone else's yum.

“I like strawberry ice-cream.”

“Yeah, yummm. Chocolate's my favorite.”


“I love the Chief Inspector Gamache novels, Louise Penny is the greatest.”

“She’s fantastic. I’m reading Stephen Mack Jones' August Snow books right now, and I’m freakin loving them.”

I want to think in a less binary way about everything. Taste, like affectional orientation, or sexual identity is all on a spectrum, and they shift throughout our lifetimes.

What I don’t want to do is make any writer and by extension reader wrong or bad. Readers are my favorite people. They're deep thinkers. They're curious by nature. They travel freely around the universe gaining knowledge from all they discover. Taking cheap shots at other’s taste to prove how smart I am, won’t and it’s a waste of time that is better spent looking for points of intersection, sharing our common love of books. 

If you know me, then you know I sometimes fail to meet this ideal, but if you tell me you love a certain author and I say “Why? What about them do you like?” Don’t take this as criticism. I really am interested in how readers connect to books, what we enjoy and why. For a long time I only liked short concise books, other dyslexics may understand this. Neurodiversity isn’t just about writers, it’s also about readers. So, what makes you stop reading a book? More importantly, what is it that makes you fall in love with a book? 


Shameless self-promotion


1 comment:

lef13 said...

45 minutes then I yelp on a book.

The strange one is if I am in a mood and can't get into a book its hard to pick up that book again. Am I the only one?