Books are pretty fucking amazing. They’re stories, and stories are: distillations of our fears, hopes, dreams, desires, forbidden hopes, and philosophical musings. They’re symbolism. They invent patterns in nature, and meaning from chaos. They are, I’d like to think, humanity’s ultimate attempt to make sense out of this senseless universe we live in. They make the ugly manageable, and the beautiful divine.
Good books can teach us about our own humanity better than our parents or teachers (sorry, guys, you’re still awesome!) because they’re not corrupted by real-life pettiness, or mistakes. They can teach us what we can become, and what the people around us can accomplish. They can teach us to dream beyond the walls of our own small realities, and that there are so many uncountable others out there to experience and discover.
And that these incredible things all come from fallible human minds is pretty awesome! Humans can do some pretty awful things sometimes, but we’re also capable of beauty and complexity.
And having said all that, reading a really awful book can make you appreciate the good ones that much more.
I bring this up because as you may know, I’ve recently started reviewing ARC’s and some of them are really good but some of them are…erm, not so great. There are a few I’ve just had to turn down because I would have felt bad publishing my true thoughts.
But these bad books are worth something as well, because they show, in a way, how hard it is to get it right. It’s like having a clean house: you don’t notice if it’s clean, you only notice when it’s dirty. And for writers, reading bad books can show you what not to do. When it’s not your own writing, it’s much easier to be critical of something that doesn’t work and to learn from that mistake.
Take, for instance, this book I read recently, called White Rabbit. Like, the cover art was great. And the premise was excellent: a fake-psychic detective is actually secretly a real psychic and solves crimes by talking to dead people. Whatever. Great summer reading. I didn’t want anything that would make me think too much. It seemed perfect.
But it was awful. Just awful. The protagonist is meant to be a hard-nosed, chemically dependent detective who doesn’t take shit from anybody. Ok. Sure, I never went into this expecting it to be great literature, so heap on the tropes. But what actually comes out as is the sad, juvenile idea of what someone thinks a hard-nosed chemically dependent detective would be like. And then you realize, oh. Characterization is not as simple as throwing in a few bit lines and giving them a fedora and an amusing cocaine addiction.
And the dialogue! Cringe. It really makes you realize that there’s more to it than throwing in some regionally-appropriate slang (that may or may not be forty years outdated) and calling it a day.
And this is far from the worst book I’ve ever read. But all these terrible books are great. Because they show you what happens when the wiring gets crossed. The intentions are good and motivated. They almost always are, unless we’re talking about a big-name author who churns out five books a year, and they’re awful in their own special ways. But good intentions do not a good book make, because if they did, everyone and their brother would have written something and the Library of Congress would span continents.
Interesting fact: the Library of Congress adds about 12,000 items to its collection every working day. That is what you might appropriately call a shit-ton of books.
Anyways. I don’t want to linger on White Rabbit because there are plenty of other terrible books to pick on as well, like this one. And this one. And many others. The point is, I don’t think reading bad books is necessarily a waste of time – at least as an educational exercise – because they can teach you so much about what not to do, and can show you what doesn’t work. And if you’re noticing any parallels between a bad book and your own writing, maybe it’s time to change a few things.
So get out there. Read wide. Read indiscriminately. Read critically. Read it all (maybe not all.) Read to learn.
Until next time, word-monkeys.