This past year, I was blessed with a student who has an IQ many, many points above mine, probably higher than most anyone reading this blog. He decided to read Atlas Shrugged. My Dad had re-read it a few years ago and kindly gave it to me for my birthday last year. It’s a hard back, weighing at least five pounds, and printed in, maybe, an 8 point font. It’s well over 1000 pages. I enjoyed The Fountainhead, so I thought I’d tackle Atlas with my student. I think we started reading this past January. He’s done. I’m not. I tried. I really, really did. Despite my student’s encouragement, it’s still sitting on my bedside table, buried at the bottom of my “to read” pile. I just checked and I made it all the way to page 126. I enjoyed some of the characters, but the story never grabbed me. And there it sits, unread.
Great Expectations is another one. I should be teaching that. It’s on The List to teach. I’ve started it four times in the last twenty years, the last time on audio this spring. In fact the paperback is buried next to Atlas on my table. Pip’s a funny kid, but the story does nothing for me. If I can’t read it, there’s no way I can teach it and expect thirty, fourteen year olds to stay with me. It’s a classic so clearly many, many people have enjoyed it. I find it, well, boring.
Perhaps it’s the sense of obligation with these tomes that turns me off. I read The Hunger Games series solely because so many of my students loved it and recommended it. I got sucked right into each of those books, reading each of them in a few hours and staying up until 1:00 am one night. I even drove all the way to town with a student’s gift card to the bookstore to pick up the last one in the series. She wanted it but could never get into town to use her card (yes, I live in rural Nevada and a trip to town is a minimum hour and a half event). We made a deal. I’d pick it up for her if she’d let me borrow it. It’s a great series if you haven’t read it – Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” meets 1984. I loved it as does every student I’ve had whose read it. That makes me think it’s the action that pulls me in, but in the past few months I’ve also read: The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, Sarah’s Quilt by Nancy Turner, The Goodbye Quilt by Susan Wigg, The girl who . . . series by Steig Larssen, The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff, and a few romance novels. All of these are certainly not action packed thrillers.
These authors have all, somehow, created stories that pull me in, grab me. How do they do it? I can come up with pieces to that answer but it’s different for each story. In some, I fall immediately in love with the characters. I care about them and need to find out what happens. For others, it’s the social commentary and internal conflict. The whole idea of wondering what I would do if I found myself in that same situation. For others its, I’ll be honest, the romance. I like a good love story. Sometimes it’s the history I find fascinating and how the author really captures a time period. All these draw me in.
When I read the last page and close the book, I’ve discovered that it’s not one single thing that I enjoyed. It’s all of it working together. Some authors do every part very well, but I’m learning that most of them do a few well. That’s good to know. In my own writing, I can do one or two things really well to draw reader in. I don’t have to master everything. That’s kind of a relief, actually. When it comes to my writing, I don’t want to be a “Jack of all trades master of none,” nor do I want the pressure to be a master of all.
Happily, I don’t have to be.