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Breaking Up with Books: One Woman’s History

A.J. O'Connell

Staff Writer

A.J. O’Connell is the author of two published novellas: Beware the Hawk and The Eagle & The Arrow. All she’s ever wanted to do in life is read and write books, and so, is constantly writing at least one novel. She holds an MFA in creative fiction, but despite the best efforts of her teachers at Fairfield University's low-residency program, remains a huge dork for sci-fi, fantasy and comic books. She is a journalist and has taught journalism to college students. She blogs about feminism, the writing life, and whatever else comes into her head at Blog: A.J. O'Connell Twitter: @ann_oconnell

“Maybe you’ll change.”

The first book I finished out of spite was an advance review copy that had been sent to the arts section of the newspaper where I worked. I was young, and it was sitting out on the newsroom freebie table. It caught my attention, one night when I was leaving work. My eyes fell on the name of the author, who had written a science fiction classic I’d loved. I picked it up immediately, even though it was set in the 1820s, and not in space. In retrospect, this genre-hopping might have been a sign.

I didn’t even wait until I got home to start reading it, but started on it during my subway ride. I immediately loved the protagonist: a tough, resourceful young woman who relied on no one but herself. Nothing could keep her down… except the author. Halfway through the book, the author began to use this protagonist as a mouthpiece to proselytize about a decidedly unfeminist issue. He’d deliberately written a woman who’d appeal to contemporary female readers, spent 250 pages getting us invested in her, and then made her the champion of patriarchy.

I felt manipulated, but I had 350 pages to go. What should I do? Throw it across the room? Just stop reading it? Throw it out? Or do I give it a chance? After all, the author had written something I’d liked before. Maybe he wasn’t really writing propaganda. Maybe things would go back to the way they were in the beginning of the book, back when I loved it.

I read the rest of the book grumbling, waiting for it to redeem itself. Wanting to know why the author had betrayed me. I was disappointed on both counts. The book had revealed itself on page 250, and it was never going to change.

“I hate myself for reading you.”

The second book I read in anger wasn’t even one I meant to read in the first place. It wasn’t even my type: non-fiction, pop-psychology, published in the ’80s. A friend’s mother, a woman I love and respect introduced it to me. She took it off her shelf and implored me to read it. It was just such a nice book, she said.

It was not a nice book. The very first page enraged me, but I couldn’t stop reading. It just was so arrogant, so misguided, so wrong. In fact, the book was so wrong, I used Post-Its to mark the very wrongest parts. I had imaginary arguments with the author. I told anyone who would listen how wrong the book was, and they shrugged and said, “so stop reading it,” but I could not put it down.

I read chapter after chapter, cursing under my breath until I ran out of chapters. I hadn’t yet run out of curses, however, so I looked up the author, meaning to call him and tell him just how wrong he was when he wrote this book. Luckily for me (and my dignity), he’d been dead for a very long time.

I kept the book on my shelf, angry Post-Its and all, for years. It was not a healthy relationship.

“I’m just not that into you.”

My latest hate-read was a book I requested on loan from the library. It was a standalone in a loosely-connected universe of books, and I’d read my way through every book in the author’s series. The first few books in the series were surprising and genre-changing and exciting, and the reviews of this book were great; if I liked the first books, I’d love this thrilling installment, promised Amazon and Goodreads. The protagonist was new! The action took place in a region hitherto represented by an empty space on the world map! So I requested it from the library, waited impatiently, and then it was here! Mine, for two weeks, at least. I opened it as soon as I got home.

As early as the first chapter, I knew something was wrong. The storyline seemed to be recycling plot points from the author’s earlier books. And the action seemed centered on a character who’d already gotten a lot of attention in earlier books. I read another chapter, and my eyes narrowed. I’d been led to believe that I’d be reading a new story about a young woman of color, but no — I was reading the same tired story about the same old white dude. And I was in for 500 pages of this.

It was lazy. It was self-indulgent. I was angry at the author for not even trying, and mad at the publishers for lying to me. But… should I read another chapter, and give it a chance? After all, the reviews were good.

I’m older now, and wiser. I shut that book and returned it to the library. If the book isn’t going to make an effort, I won’t either.