I was a voracious but streaky reader growing up. I would hit upon a theme–even in grammar school–and read my way through it. One year it was biographies of the presidents–I worked my way from (1) Washington to (36) LBJ. After that it was countries of the world. I would burn through a series of books until I got to the end. Then I wouldn’t read for a few weeks or maybe even longer, but would eventually find a new vein to mine.
Sports biographies were less linear. I read about Jim Thorpe of course, Joe Louis, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, Jim Brown. In junior high I discovered sports biographies that were considered risque at the time: a Joe Namath biography that described how he lost his virginity and Ball Four by Jim Bouton that described Mickey Mantle’s heavy drinking. I read chunks of these in the library stacks because I wasn’t old enough to take them out, then got my older sister to take them out for me.
One day my sister was taking out one book for me and grabbed another, Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story. I put it aside, then read, reread, and then reread it again. If I had been indiscriminate in my reading–and happy to read anything about a subject that interested me–I somehow knew this book was different. It was gripping, poignant, sad, and ultimately exhilarating. It brought to life the brilliance of Hawkins as a player against the backdrop of racism, class, and power in American life.
I was 13 and hooked on good writing.
I have spent precious little reading time on poor or mediocre reading since, save my one guilty pleasure, the occasional John Grisham novel (each of which puts the formula in formulaic but somehow still keeps me reading).
The value of my time became abundantly clear in college where a contemporary novel class had me reading ten books and in one semester. That same semester had me in a Gothic novel class. Just before Thanksgiving I hit the wall while reading Melmoth the Wanderer, which Amazon tells me is 704 pages but I remember as 1700. I got through it, though, and finished the semester well.
That winter break I had some required reading to do but not so much that I couldn’t pick up an odd book or two. I decided to read a social science book that a friend recommended. I’ve decided to not mention the author because the book was terrible–insipid, poorly written, and overblown. I am not mentioning the author’s name in part to not offend anyone; more importantly, though, I don’t want to say something that I would then have to back up. To back it up I would have to go back and read it again and I simply wouldn’t do that to myself.
I can vividly remember the moment I abandoned the book. I was waiting for a train at Boston’s North Station. I was sitting on the end of a bench, next to a trash barrel. I got through one last flatulent paragraph and couldn’t take it any more. I flipped the book into the trash.
It was the first book I ever threw away and the last. And, putting aside, Grisham, it was the last bad book I read.