This post comes with a trigger warning aka it might be a little bit ranty. As a long time avid reader I have developed my own unique taste of books and along with that an equally unique set of pet peeves. No matter how amazing the plot of a story is, if it hits one of my peeves, it sends me into a bit of a childish fit.
Up until about yesterday, my summer reading was running quite smoothly. I usually average about 3 or 4 books a week and the book that I am currently on, which inspired this post, is The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. What you will quickly learn about me is that one of my biggest faults is that I tend to let public opinion sway my reading. If a book is constantly being mentioned in the press and it tops a bestseller list, I have to see what all of the hype is about. This has caused me to read A LOT of really terrible books.
Anyways, that would be the reason why I am currently reading this book, and the fact that I saw the movie a few months earlier, which of course means that I have to see how the book compares. I would like to point out that I have not finished this book and I am reserving my overall opinion of it until I completely finish it. (If you are interested in what kind of books I read on a day to day basis and the reviews I give of them I will be posting a link to my Goodreads page in the near future). The topic of the post is just something I noticed that really annoys me to no end.
This pet peeve is something that I have cleverly labeled the Miming Intelligence Factor. Now you are all wondering what the heck I could possibly mean. Well this factor can usually be found filed under the "Show, Not Tell" advice usually given to new writers. This problem I find always pops up when two characters are interacting together and then a bookshelf is introduced. Now under normal circumstances and with great writing the presence of another work of literature within a book is like a red flag to the reader. It indicates a foreshadowing moment or maybe hints at some of the overarching themes present. Sometimes it even provides a subtle look into the personality of the character. This technique sadly gets abused and quite often indicates poor writing.
What I HATE the most is when the author uses the books on the shelf to make a character instantly intelligent without having to actually put forth the effort to make the character's intelligence come to life with dialogue and though their actions. Take for instance this little gem of a paragraph in The Time Traveler's Wife. Here one of the main characters, Clare, is looking at the bookshelf of her love interest, Henry, and looking at all of the titles:
While I wait for it to brew, I peruse Henry's bookshelves. Here is the Henry I know. Donne's Elegies and Songs and Sonnets. Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe. Naked Lunch. Anne Bradstreet, Immanuel Kant. Barthes, Foucault, Derrida. Blake's Song of Innocence and Experience. Winnie the Pooh. The Annotated Alice. Heidegger. Rilke. Tristram Shandy. Wisconsin Death Trip. Aristotle. Bishop Berkeley. Andrew Marvell. Hypothermia, Frostbite and Other Cold Injuries.
Well...that is quite the bookshelf he has there. Not a single popular bestseller in the lot. He must be an incredible boring, tweed wearing stuffed shirt professor, and a particular brand of hipster that only reads the classics...oh he's not...well then.
This is what I call the Miming Intelligence Factor. Instead of allowing Henry's personality to reflect his intelligence, readers get this gigantic, pretentious, and least lifelike list of all the books Henry likes ON PAGE 19!!! Here I am trying to get a feel for the characters, warming up to their slightly awkward and stilted first person diary style narration and I get this load of crap so early in the book. It's like the author is yelling to the reader "LOOK LOOK!!! My character reads Marlowe and Aristotle. That means he is SOOOOO intelligent and you can't argue with that." No. I want you to show me his intelligence, not tell me with a list of books.
Now it may seem like I am targeting this particular book in the post and I can assure you I'm not. I have found this phenomena in so many other books and now that I have mentioned it I can bet you will start to notice this little trick as well. This factor just irks me so much because I appreciate lifelike characters...characters I can empathize with. I'm not saying that characters like Henry should only have present day award winning literature on their shelves, I love classics as much as the next person. In fact if someone were to plan to steal all of my books, they would have to pry my copy of Jane Eyre out of my cold, dead hands. The above list is just not realistic or welcoming to the reader because no one limits themselves to just the classics...we all do a little book slumming now and again. It happens.
My overall point of this rant seems to be tread lightly with the inclusion of a bookshelf scene in a novel. Sometimes it's better for everyone if you just do some character development because that is how great books are made.
I hope you got a little enjoyment from my mini rant session and stay tuned for my next post which will be a USED BOOK HAUL!!!!!