Book Intimidation

I haven’t posted in awhile and the only reason I can is… well, no, two reasons… (1) the Olympics – figure skating had me a little wrapped up there for awhile – and (2) book intimidation. I don’t know if anyone else uses this term but it is a very real thing that reader’s experience, and this is what I, at least, call it. It is the feeling one gets when thinking about tackling a big or challenging book. You feel intimidated by the size or weight of it, in a physical but also mental and emotional sense. You don’t know if you’re up to it.

I have experienced this before with Treasure Island no less. I wanted to read it as a teen and pick up a second hand copy. But I found the language in the first few pages challenging and I have never gone back, more’s the pity. I think I associate it with a feeling of trepidation. This time around it was Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel that got me.

I read a bit of news about the new stage production of Wolf Hall based on the book. I saw it was about the Tudors and Thomas Cromwell and reportedly very good. I looked up the book and put it on hold and before you know it, it arrived at the library. I didn’t know much about this book going in but when it arrived and I realized it was 650 large pages, I wasn’t sure where I was going to find the time. I’m not a particularly fast reader.  And there on the cover was a stamp saying it was short listed for the Booker Prize. Things started to look a whole lot more serious; not light reading experience here.

Now I had to think, do I want to read this book this much. Do I want to take on the the commitment of time and energy. I know enough about the Tudors and Cromwell to know there probably isn’t going to be a happy ending for pretty much anyone involved. I expected my emotions might take a beating and I may cry. (The cover probably didn’t help. It looks a little torturous.) So I delayed and then the task, for it started to feel like a task, began to feel more daunting. During most of January my reading had been made up of mysteries and children’s books. I had been on an Agatha Christie kick and it seemed like to big a leap to now take on literature that might demand something from me. 

Why do some book intimidate and not others? It’s not just a size thing or no one would read anything by Kenneth Follett, and yet people do, willingly. I think it depends on a personal circumstances – mood, personal experience, reading level, interests, background, time of year. Interestingly, my summer reading is often the more serious. I have often picked up large books and completed them and felt satisfied in the summer. I have read The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad in the summer, and it probably has a page for each of the siege, maybe more; I have read A Short History of Nearly Everything and Anna Karenina in the summer. Is this because reading feels less like work in the summer? I have also read a lot of total crap in the summer, so perhaps this theory won’t stand up to too much scrutiny.

Maybe books just have a time, a right time, when you are ready for them. I certainly wasn’t ready for Wuthering Heights in grade 12 but it was perfect timing just out of university. But this book intimidation was more than that. I was deliberately avoiding the book – I hadn’t even opened it, given it a try. At first I told myself I would read the books I had borrowed earlier first. But then I found myself by-passing it and reading book I had borrowed since. I didn’t know what I was going to get into and wasn’t sure if I wanted to – I was intimidated by a book.

How did I get passed it? Two things – (1) I finally read a bad mystery. I didn’t enjoy it and I knew I needed something more. I was better than this. (2) I just picked up the book and opened it. I told myself that I had better take it back to the library the next day if I wasn’t going to read it, but first I would just read a little bit and than I would feel more justified in my action. I probably wouldn’t enjoy it and then I could be excused for being so craven and running from a book. But turns out I liked the first few pages, a lot, and I didn’t want to take it back after all. Maybe it was the right time or maybe I got past the appearance or maybe I just faced the book bully, and like most bullies, it back off.

I’m not done Wolf Hall yet. It is going to take me awhile but I’m really liking it. I’m glad I opened it, tried it out. Not only have I got past the mental block, the book intimidation, but it’s probably the best reading experience I have had since Blackout and All Clear (although I do think Agatha Christie’s Murder in Retrospect is a great novel). And I don’t mean to say that big books should be read just so one can say you’ve read them and feel superior. I just want to say that book intimidation is a real thing. You may experience it from time to time and that’s okay. It may not be the right time for you and the book. Just don’t let the books win. Don’t let them make you feel badly about yourself and them – that they are a burden and mean. That’s just how they look from the outside, but on the inside they really are good.