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In Praise of Putdownable Books

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For a while now, the highest praise the book blogosphere could attach to a great read was that it was “unputdownable.” Fuddy-duddy linguistic prescriptivists excepted, we’ve accepted this neologism to suggest a book that we absolutely, positively cannot stop reading no matter what. Those books we burn through in mere hours or stay up all night reading. But what about the opposite of unputdownable: the putdownable book?

Don’t misunderstand me: there’s a lot of good to a good unputdownable book. When you have the time and inclination and focus, that’s exactly what you want. The unputdownables will power you through a readathon, help you get to your book club on time, and make sure you defeat your library fines in one fell swoop. But I have to tell you, whether it’s my age and stage of life or just the particular rhythm of my life right now, the last thing I am able to make time and space for is an unputdownable book.

This is a post in praise of the putdownable book.

I don’t know what’s up with me lately, but I don’t have a lot of focus for reading these days. (Actually, that’s a lie. I know exactly what’s up with me. I’m seventeen weeks pregnant, I have a pre-maternity leave to-do list the length of Margaret Atwood’s backlist, and between insomnia and anxiety my attention span is officially shot.) What I have, instead, is several half-hour moments every few days — maybe before breakfast, during lunch, after dinner — when I can manage a few pages of a decent read. I don’t want something to grip me so profoundly that I simply feel more acutely my inability to buckle down and read. I want something that will welcome me in, remind me of what I’ve been missing, and let me go gently again when it’s time.

I’ve been thinking about the qualities that make a book a quality putdownable read. Because the key is, for this to work you have to want to pick it back up again. And that’s tricky for a lot of putdownable books. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

  • Memorable characters and a manageable number of them. Don’t make me have to pull out a family tree to keep everyone straight. It’s good if I wonder about what they get up to when I’m not with them.
  • A burbling conflict. Not something so explosive that I have to know what happens next, but not so quiet and slow-moving that I forget about it if I have to go a week between reading sessions.
  • Moderate pacing. Too gripping and fast-paced and I’ll just be angry I can’t devote more time to it, but too plodding and I won’t have enough time in my reading break to get to the good bit.

Right now, I’m really pleased with Philippa Gregory’s  The Taming of the Queen as my putdownable read of choice. Indeed, I actually forgot I was reading this book for about a month while I worked on some reviews I owed to various venues, and when I picked it up again it was like we had never been apart. I think historical fiction has a big advantage here, especially if it’s about a historical event or person you already care about (and I find the wives of Henry VIII absolutely fascinating). If you have suggestions for other great putdownable reads, share them with me in the comments! I am definitely taking the advice of others who appreciate the magic of a good putdownable read.

To put down or not to put down — that is the question. Though, at the moment, it doesn’t feel like I have much of choice. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got 15 minutes before I need to try to sleep. I think I’ll dip into The Taming of the Queen for a page or two.