The right books to read when you don’t actually have time to read a book —

Which, for me, means when I’m writing. Well, when I’m supposed to be writing.

That’s the thing: sometimes I have a deadline and I need to meet it, but I still need something to point my eyes at while eating breakfast. Or I might want a book to read for an hour before bed, but nothing that will compel me to pick it back up in the morning when I should be getting work done.

Or maybe I don’t actually have a deadline, but it’s spring break or (as now) between the end of the semester and the start of the summer session, so I have a week or two off and it would be just criminal to waste all that free time. So I don’t want to get drawn into someone else’s great book, yet I still want something to read while walking with the dogs on the nearby bike trail – the girls love this, but the bike trail is terribly boring if you’re on foot: too straight and level to be interesting, and the scenery is nothing exciting.

Or actually the same kind of situation may come up if you have time to start a book, but you’re soon going to need to go somewhere or do stuff with friends or family and won’t be able to finish your book for a day or two. Obviously that would be a bad time to start The Year’s Most Anticipated Novel.

Nonfiction is good, of course, and I do have some nonfiction books sitting around. I’ll certainly read one or more of those in the next week. But sometimes I’m dying to read something with an actual plot, but don’t want to risk getting distracted from my own work by someone else’s masterpiece. It’s not enough to have read the book before – even to have read it several times. That’s because it can kill your enthusiasm to read something that’s really outstanding, because how can you match that? So this isn’t a good time to reach for, say, A CIVIL CAMPAIGN by Lois McMaster Bujold, even if under other circumstances that book counts as a “comfort read.”

At these moments, what you need is a book which: a) you’ve read before, maybe several times; and also a book which: b) you like, but not that much.

For me, there are several appropriate series. David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, that’s a great choice! I like it well enough, but not nearly well enough to get sucked in. As far as I’m concerned, the writing just isn’t good enough to be compelling, so that’s a series where I can pick a book up and put it down again without a pang after ten minutes. Plus, the series is long enough that it can be stretched out over at least a week.

SM Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time series does the trick for me. So is Eric Flint’s 1632 series, and for the same reasons: Lots of bits are entertaining, but the point of view is so scattered that I after the first time I read them, I was never again all that emotionally engaged.

For me, Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels series also works. That’s the one I’m reading now. For me, this is a series that might be described as “catchy” without being actually good enough to be compelling – at least, not now that I’ve read it a couple of times. I like a lot of things about this trilogy, especially the humor in the young-Jaenelle scenes, but it’s a series where I flip through and read favorite scenes, not one where I flip it open, read a favorite scene, get caught, and wind up reading the whole thing again.

For me, a book that’s good-enough-but-not-too-good is just as much a keeper as a book which is FABULOUS – because I spend a pretty large chunk of time every year needing books that I can read but put down. That’s something I need to think of before I put a book on my give-away pile. In fact, I should probably go take a close look at the books on the give-away pile right now, just to make sure I haven’t accidentally discarded something which could be useful, even if it will never make my top-ten-of-all-time list.

Okay, gotta go: last day of Finals is over and it’d be ridiculous to get all the way to June 3rd and the start of the summer session without having done anything useful with my time. No time to waste, considering there are also ferns and hostas to transplant, seeds to get in the garden now that it’s finally warm enough to bother planting, and all those apples and peaches to thin quick before they get too heavy for the trees. Busy busy! For the next few days, the only fiction I expect to read is random scenes from the Black Jewels trilogy.

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2 thoughts on “The right books to read when you don’t actually have time to read a book —”

  1. I use nonfiction for this, of course, though I very seldom have the same need for put-downable books in general.

    I find myself wondering how an author would react to a review that described their book this way. After all, you do say books like this are re-readable, so it’s not *all* damning with faint praise.

  2. Still — *I* wouldn’t like to hear someone say, “It’s great, very easy to put down.”! I do think a book that works for this purpose must be intrinsically flawed — like, the scattered points of view in SM Stirling’s books, plus how many bad-guy points-of-view he includes, really do prevent the reader (at least me) from attaching emotionally to his characters, and that is definitely a problem. It’s just a problem that comes with some advantages for me!

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