The top five slots on this week’s New York Times bestseller list (for combined hardcover and paperback fiction) include three books by E.L. James, one by Deborah Harkness, and another by James Patterson.
Oh, yes. Summertime beach reading is in full swing. But before you shame yourself for buying one of those guilty pleasures, try a different approach to reading. One that gives you license to read terrible books every now and then.
Allow me to speak from experience. Story time.
I should’ve stopped on page six, but didn’t.
“”She smoked like a chimney.”
- What?! How did a cliché like that get past editors? No. How could a professional writer–a former New York Times columnist who went on to become the editor of a major Condé Nast magazine– PUT IT ON A PAGE?
It was a red flag, but I ignored it. Two hundred pages later, I closed the book with a “So glad that’s over.” (If you’re like me, you have a weird, completely illogical guilt that comes with leaving books unfinished.)
Lessons From Terrible Books
But you know what? I learned a lot in the process.
Because at page 75, I grabbed a pencil and started a rollicking game of Highfalutin Book Editor. (What, you’ve never heard of it?) I crossed out superfluous words, metaphors that tried too hard, overused adjectives (how many times is “gossamer” really necessary?) and–at the end of one chapter–wrote “WHAT WAS THE POINT OF THE LAST 20 PAGES??”
I learned a lot because I forced myself to read with a hypercritical eye. It felt like I was mentally teaching that writer how to improve, which was a great method for ingraining certain writing lessons into my own mind.
Brain research shows that we remember 90% of what we teach, so playing Highfalutin Book Editor might not be such a bad idea. Bust it out at parties.
Of course, it’s hard to play that game with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Or Fyodor Dostoevsky. Or Mark Twain. When I read The Greats, the game that usually ensues is Try Not To Get Too Depressed With What A Poseur I Am. Obviously, we learn the most from great literature, so it should take up most of our reading list.
But if you’re heading out for a beach vacation soon, don’t feel too guilty over picking up the latest Janet Evanovich or Dan Brown novel. Just be sure to bring a pencil.
Spend fifteen minutes playing Highfalutin Book Editor.
Go to your bookshelf and pick out a terrible book (you know you have some!). Select a passage–maybe four or five sentences–that could use some help. (If it’s a truly terrible book, this shouldn’t be hard to find.) Rework it. Gut the entire thing if necessary. Post your shiny new version of the passage in the comments below, and be sure to type up the original version so we can see your improvements!