When a Book Hits the Wall

I set a new record a little while ago. I walled a book after I got to the fifth page of the introduction. This may be the earliest I’ve sent a non-fiction book sailing (or would have if I’d paid for it rather than checking it out of the library.) I can take books with a hard bias. I can take books that turn out to be other than advertised. I can take books that don’t cover what I’m interested in/need. The trifecta was too much and the offending tome went back to the library post-haste.

It may be a legacy of graduate school, but I have a pretty high tolerance for bad writing in non-fiction. Fiction’s a little different, but I’ve also been reading less fiction the past few years because of a lack of time. The last fiction book I walled was the first volume in Harry Turtledove’s supervolcano series. I rolled my eyes at the geology oopsies and managed to work past the huge number of PoV characters.  I walled the book when a character did something so cruel, and so unnecessary, that I couldn’t read any farther. I happen to know the place where the event happened very well, and I knew for d-mn sure that the character 1) had other options and 2) had just condemned an innocent to a lingering, painful death. And so the book went sailing and I have not returned to the series or any of the author’s other books.

(As an aside, that was several years ago. Even now, just thinking about that passage makes me want to cry, and to reach into the book and do physical damage to the character. So Turtledove gets points for hitting an emotional center.)

I’ve also walled fiction books because the author establish rules for his world . . and promptly broke them. Usually after a long exposition about why the rule is unbreakable and vital to the survival of Nowhereistan. And then four pages or so later proceeds to break the rule and then act as if nothing happened. “Whump,” against the wall it goes.

The non-fiction book though, that may be a new personal record. Usually a book that problematic I can spot from the dust jacket, author bio, or bibliography. No, this one, about the Spanish Civil War, looked pretty good. But instead of a summary history of the conflict (what the jacket and blurb advertise), it is a history of different people who worked with the Republicans. OK, for that I’d just grumble and set it aside, or skim it to look for anything possibly useful.

Nope, because five or so pages into the introduction the author introduces the opposition. And his language is so slanted and blatantly anti-Franco that it completely threw me out of the book. I am aware that Franco and the army were most certainly not saints. I am also aware that the Republicans were not, either. Not by a long shot (despite how they are shown in Pan’s Labyrinth). I managed to live with heavy bias in other books, but this was just too much.  I’ll go read Orwell and a few others.

In grad school I was exposed to the idea of a good bad book. This is a work that is so provocative, or flat wrong, that other historians rear up on their hind legs, put up their fists, and say, “Oh yeah? I’ll show you.” And a flurry of excellent research and results pour forth as people labor to rebut the bad book. So as bad as it may have been, the book ends up doing far more good than harm over the course of a few years.  Most fields have at least one or two works like that, and I’ve read some of them. Note that these are not books that are bad because they are outdated or use data that later proves to be untrustworthy, but that advance theses so outrageous/insulting/over-the-top that people feel compelled to prove the author wrong.

But some books just get walled.