Writings by Cole Huffman

The Chronicles of Ahasuerus' Memorable Deeds, and Other Bad Books

Perhaps this is the best time to tell you—after I used this space last month to commend some good books to you—that I was in something of a reading slump most of 2012. Similar to a batting slump when a hitter can’t connect his bat to a pitch, a reading slump is not connecting with a lot of the books you’ve picked up to read.

The low point of the slump was standing in a bookstore a few weeks ago, generous gift card in hand, and I couldn’t find a thing I really wanted to read. I wandered the aisles for an hour, reproaching myself for judging books by their covers, finally setting upon a hefty presidential biography along with a book that anecdotally explores the psychopathic diagnosis. I have $6.13 left on the card and $43.87 worth of here’s hoping.

How does a reading slump happen? We’re not talking about the literary equivalent of trying to hit R. A. Dickey’s knuckleball. Anyone literate can read anything I’m adding to my shelves and Kindle. I don’t consider my booklists inspired. I’m just a guy standing before the fruits of the printing press, asking them to nourish my soul. No pressure, right?

Following some pastoral advice I received many years ago, I try to read broadly and pay attention to what’s read by the theological populace as well as the general public. I part ways with much of what the general public reads, adapting another piece of pastoral advice I received back in August at a Christian writer’s workshop: Don’t write for fools. The profane and banal always finds readers—witness the Fifty Shades of Grey publishing phenomenon. So if I don’t endeavor to write rubbish I’ll endeavor not to read it either.

Some books written by Christians for Christians, while not profane or banal, are hardly worth their purchase price if they state the obvious blandly. My mother was an editor both of a small town newspaper and at a major Nashville publishing house. She freelances now and occasionally tells me about yet another manuscript entry in the Chronicles of Ahasuerus’ Memorable Deeds (see Esther 6:1 to get the reference). It seems there is no author so zealous to publish as he who really has nothing new to say about this or that but wants to write it all out for the rest of us anyway.

I picked up a few of those guys’ and gals’ books this year and they were easy to put down. In fact, putting books down has become easier for me through the years. I used to feel compelled to finish every book I started, even ones I knew were bad. That’s like continuing to pet a dog with fleas because he likes the attention.

If an author hasn’t hooked me by chapter 2 he’s probably not going to. Too many “authors”—I prefer to call them people whose names have been printed on a book spine—are in this category, Christian publishing being a worst offender. I love that many Christians read regularly though for years the Christian bestseller lists have made me want to reach for a Prozac.

I make beyond-chapter-2 exceptions for books requiring denser philosophical or exegetical processing because I’m not asking an author to not make me work. With some books the reward is staying at the prose until you get the point because the point is important and I know the author genuinely has something insightfully relevant to contribute. I sometimes read those books standing up (literally) to not succumb to drowsiness—especially after a Lenny’s lunch.

But too many books don’t reward the reader’s efforts at all. As Charles Dickens put it in Oliver Twist, “There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.” In putting those books down and away this past year, I found myself reluctant to try others. I was apprehensive more than cynical: Why can’t I find anything good to read?

Then it occurred to me: Why am I not rereading those books I know enriched me? Why am I always looking for the next book, the new book? I’d become like the batter who focuses too hard on hitting the breaking balls that he whiffs the fastballs.

So for every new book I read in 2013 I’m going to reread one from years past that was particularly formative for me. One breaks out of a reading slump by reading his way through it, of course, like the old Puritan advice of pray until you’re praying. But a reading slump is broken not just by reading but rereading books I need to ponder again. The slump is a goad to return me to those books that awakened, inflamed, shaped, and stretched me indelibly. I won’t read them again in quite the same way I did at first but that’s not the point. The point is that rereading is refortifying in its own way.

A book probably isn’t really appreciated until it’s read and reread—unless we’re talking of course about insomnia-busters like the Chronicles of Ahasuerus’ Memorable Deeds.
Posted by Cole Huffman at 9:30 AM
Share |