It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984
And that’s how it happened. The aliens attacked, and I had no choice.
Hold on…How did what happen? Why are aliens attacking you? And you had no choice but to what? What is going on?!?
Not too long ago, I realized I really dislike the beginning of books. Sure, sure sometimes you get a nice Tale of Two Cities opening, a highly quotable “truth universally acknowledged,” or a colonel remembering his father taking him to discover ice. So much weighs on that opening line. My interest, for one.
I guess it’s not so much the opening line as it is the whole introductory process. Sometimes authors go for the in medias res strategy, dropping the reader in the middle of a high speed car chase: “Why are we being chased by the cops?” “No time to explain. Ignore the ten penguins in the backseat and JUST DRIVE!”
Well, as a reader, I kinda would like to know why the cops are chasing us. Maybe we can just talk it out, you know…Let’s not be so rash. Also, your weird hat is scaring the penguins.
Then there’s the books that make me feel like I’m suffering from a bad case of amnesia. Suddenly, I’m surrounded by 20 characters I’m supposed to know and care about, but I don’t know why. They keep talking like we’ve known each other for years, and I’m just like, “What’s your name again? Also, where are we?”
My least favorite are the books that resemble awkward dinner parties. So-and-so invited me to some party, and then the jerk didn’t show up. Now I’m in a room full of strangers, forced into mandatory small talk. We go through the regular pleasantries, superficial social rituals, and nothing feels particularly meaningful or memorable. Turning each page (or clicking next) gets harder and harder.
Authors are occasionally creative fellows, and yet rare are the books that sweep me off my feet from the get-go.
This really bothered me the other day. It didn’t seem like a big deal until I realized I had barely made a dent in Viramontes’ Under the Feet of Jesus after 2 weeks. Have I just read too many books? Have I somehow deadened my literary senses?
In a world of Netflix and YouTube, books sometimes pale in comparison. Not only because the former include sounds, visuals, and usually pretty people, but because in some ways, television is more passive. All you have to do is press play. You sit back and watch the events unfold. It’s a pastime created for our day and age, in which we like to separate our work and play. In which leisure means thinking about nothing.
On the other hand, well-written books take work. Using only verbal cues, your mind crafts an imaginary world, complete with characters, costuming, setting, and so on. You discover this world in small sections at a time, reading between the lines or filling in the gaps where you need to. You paint your own, unique decrepit picture of Dorian Gray. And if you unfortunately learned any literary theory, there’s an additional layer of analysis. At least for me, reading is akin to getting to know someone. It takes time, effort, and a few trips to Starbucks. But it’s a worthwhile process. After all, you might finally discover why there are ten penguins in the car.
Of course, there’s exceptions to all of this, and I’m not declaring war on TV and the internet (because I’d lose). I’m merely reflecting on reasons why I start more books than finish them or why watching another movie seems easier than reading a book. I think my antagonism toward the beginning of books has more to do with my aversion towards the work involved in reading than the opening itself. Just as authors vary in skill, great readers excel in constant engagement with a text. And well…sometimes it’s just more comfortable to open up a coke and watch another episode of American Ninja Warrior.