This morning I was horrified to read someone on the Twitter saying that they had read the first page of a book and consigned it to the charity shop pile without hesitation.
I wasn’t upset because I had the sudden epiphany that none of my first pages are any good and I might as well cut my losses. None of my current first pages are likely to be my final first pages. After all, when I go back and read them over, my brain will be physiologically different (according to an article I read and now can’t find again). Going back to things after three months or more, I will undoubtedly come up with a better way of saying whatever I’d tried to say originally. That or I’ll realise it was tosh and edit it out. I’m sure the author of the book hated by this morning’s tweeter went through the same process.
Neither was I stirred to blogging action because I’d read the book myself and couldn’t understand why anyone could hate it. I can’t actually remember what it was, now.
No, my problem was the notion that you can judge a book by its first page.
I have always striven to get to the end of books. That is my cross to bear, and I’m not in any way suggesting everyone should adopt the same policy. I vividly remember the first time I had to admit defeat because I really wasn’t into something – that memory in itself is indicative of the depth of obsession, I suppose. The book was The Starlight Crystal by Christopher Pike, and I was in Primary Seven, and I tried very hard to care about the characters, but I didn’t. I still got about half way through before abandoning it, though. I am tenacious when I want to be.
Obviously some stories start out better than others, and ideally writers should strive for a killer opening that will suck readers in like some nightmarish metaphor involving a Henry hoover. But if it so happens that a first page is a bit weak, there might be something amazing when you PTO. And anyway, sometimes you aren’t in the mood to read a particular type of book.
If you’re feeling really knackered and fed up, and you don’t want to think about anything because you’re more than a little bit worried your brain might be leaking into your spinal cord; then someone hands you Anna Karenina or something by H.P.Lovecraft to cheer you up, you’ll probably inform them politely and calmly that now is not the time. This does not mean you are unable to appreciate the relative merits of Russian Historical Melodrama, or gothic horror/sci fi at its surreal and subversive best. It more likely means you are tired and in need of a long bath. Maybe with some crappy paperback that you don’t have to think about, that has a picture of a shoe on the cover (or whatever the macho equivalent is… a fireball, perhaps).
Other times, you might want more of a challenge. Something thought provoking and engrossing – a literary tome, perhaps. These can be hard to get into because the writers tend to batter you over the head with startlingly weighty prose, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the journey isn’t worth it in the end. People don’t read books like this solely so they can go to their book group and feel smug about being the best educated (although that undoubtedly motivates some folk), but because sometimes beautiful use of language and sweeping views of the world from a different angle are uplifting and wonderful to read.
Meanwhile there are yet further books so poorly written that you read on in morbid fascination to see if they can get any worse. Romance is the main culprit here and yes, it can.
More books still are exciting and well written from the get-go, in your pal’s opinion, whilst you thought that actually that Life of Pi/Da Vinci Code/Confessions of a Shopaholic/Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was a big steaming heap of you-know-what.
My point is, these things are variable, and subjective, and that’s why I can’t cope with the notion of deciding whether to continue off the back of the first page. First chapter, OK, maybe. But first page? The first page of a book has bugger all on it! There’s usually a blank gap at the top (for no very good reason I’ve been able to work out), then ‘Chapter One’ in big italics about a third of the way down, leaving enough space for maybe 200-250 words before you have to turn over. This blog post is nearly three times that length, and so far nobody has tried to cart it off to The British Heart Foundation. Mainly because that would be silly, but you take my point.
If you can judge something worthless after 200 words, that is your right as a human person. If you did it with a graphic novel or poetry book, I might even concede you’d given it a fair go. But frankly it goes against every moral fibre in me; as a hoarder of books, as a reader of as much as is reasonable given all the writing I’ve got to do, and as a typer of several thousand words this year that will be meticulously honed merely to be smited (smitten?) by your cruelty.
With that in mind, I expect to see you at dawn, with a cutlass, at twenty paces.
Good day sir.