Wednesday, September 11, 2013

When You Start Reading a Novel

You read and write at the office all day—text messages and emails, memos and letters, notes and reports. And there’s more waiting at home—bills and business, lists to make and do, more notes and letters to answer. With all the other demands on you—chores and errands, “quality time” with the spouse and kids, necessary “me time” in the tub—you’re lucky to squeeze in a few minutes with a good book.

Once you’ve made the choice to pick up that novel, whether genre or literary, what do you do?

Hmmm, how long is this? 365 pages. Normal-size print? A large font means less volume, less story. Good--it looks about 12 points.

Lessee, about 300 words per page? OK, this will keep me out of trouble for a few nights.

So you start the first chapter. Halfway through, because it’s pretty good, you start wondering about the author. Who wrote this, again? You flip to the front cover and catch the name. Am I supposed to know this writer? Flip to the inside back cover for the bio. Hmmm… lives in Washington, D.C. …ex-analyst for the State Department… There’s no mention of any other books. Must be her first. I’ll give it some leeway. …Ed Hoch Award for Excellence … medal from the Atlantic Mystery Writer’s Guild. OK, I’ll expect a little more from it. There’s a photo of a slender woman in a pullover and jeans standing by a tree. Casual, unpretentious. A show of humility. Okay.

Who’s the publisher? Flip to the copyright page. St. Martin’s. Pretty good for a first novel. What’s the copyright date? If you bought this book at a garage sale, there’s a good chance it’s old enough she’s written more novels since this one and you start anticipating finding and enjoying them.

And who’s it dedicated to? “To my parents—Phil and Jennifer.” Ah. Definitely a first book. Must not have a life-partner.

Everything you flipped to just now, you already logged but wanted to review to understand the author a little better. By now you’re back reading the story, a bit more informed about its creator. Wait a minute, I thought this is about a murder at the White House. What does the back cover say, again? “An undersecretary at the State Department found floating in the Potomac leads D.C. detective Romina Gale to the White House and a conspiracy—“ OK, my bad.

I have to go to bed soon. How much longer is this chapter? You flip to the end of the chapter, taking care not to read the text, just to see how much more there is to it. OK, just a few pages. I’ll stay up. And you keep reading until you look at the clock. Two o’clock. Damn! Just when she’s about to interview the President.

Before putting it down for the night you rifle the pages, feel the heft of it. You face a decision: Do I continue with this book? Because as silly as it may seem to say, a novel is a commitment of time and emotion and you've begun a relationship with its author. Do I want to commit to this novel? Is this an author I want to get to know?

I hope she is. Because you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a princess. You have to read many novels—some reek, some are merely bad, many are fair-to-middling, most are mediocre (and that’s after they’ve all been through the editing and publishing process)—to find a really good one. But it is such a joy when you do. And that author has made a reader for life. You scour the brick-and-mortar stores, book bazaars, yard sales, and now the Internet for all his or her work.

What do you look for when you start reading a novel?