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The Reader’s Dilemma

So many books, so little time. What to read next?

By John Cadley


Illustration by Bart Browne

As a Toastmaster, I’ll bet you’re an avid reader. So perhaps you can understand my dilemma. I’ve just finished a book and am trying to decide what to read next. You know the feeling: Hmmm … what am I in the mood for? In my case, I’ve just finished Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant, the great American Civil War general and U.S. president. I like reading books like that. They make you feel so knowledgeable. I can tell you, for instance, what that famous middle initial “S” stands for. Nothing! It was a clerical error on Grant’s application to West Point that just happened to stick. His real name is Hiram Ulysses Grant. I like learning things like that. And now I finally know who’s buried in Grant’s tomb.

Usually, I’ll balance out a “big book” like that with some fiction, sort of like a palate cleanser. But what to read? I am of the mind that modern fiction can’t hold a candle to the Jane Austens and Gustave Flauberts of the world, so I’m always looking for a good classic. Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past has been on my list for years, but, alas, I’ve waited too long. At seven volumes, 4,125 pages and 1,267,069 words, I probably wouldn’t live to finish it. And once I start a book I have to finish it. (It’s compulsion. You wouldn’t believe the trash I’ve read. But I read it!) Not that I expect my last words to be anything quotable, but I certainly don’t want them to be, “I can’t die! I’m only halfway through Volume 4!”

I could go the totally classic route and try Dante’s Divine Comedy, but I haven’t been to church in a while and don’t really want to read graphically poetic descriptions of what happens to backsliders in the Ninth Circle of Hell. Or I could tackle Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. But then … am I really in the mood to go wandering around the misty moors of England with a creepy guy named Heathcliff?

The Russians are always good for a great story. But if I’m not up for creepy, then Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead is out. Leo Tolstoy is an option. I’ve read War and Peace, but Anna Karenina beckons from the bookshelf. A definite possibility—as long as I forget that in the end she gets run over by a train.

“When I look at my bookcase full of self-help books that haven’t helped, I have to wonder: Will one more contain the magic formula for happiness?”

People have told me I should try science fiction, which deals with strange, weird things that happen in the future. Personally, I’d prefer a book that explains the strange, weird things that happen in the present—like The Bachelorette TV show.

I’ve missed the mystery bug as well, which I blame on my mother. She loved mysteries, especially Agatha Christie. She’d become so engrossed in the adventures of Monsieur Poirot that she’d burn the meatloaf and we’d all have to eat what was essentially a brick of charcoal. Hence, from an early age mystery stories have literally left a bad taste in my mouth. Besides, who wants to read a book where you think you’ve put all the clues together, only to find out you were completely clueless?

Then there’s that great modern genre of self-help. Always tempting. But when I look at my bookcase full of self-help books that haven’t helped, I have to wonder: Will one more contain the magic formula for happiness? I sometimes think self-help is meant more for the authors—i.e., write a book and help yourself to some big bucks.

So what will I read next? I’ve known all along but am embarrassed to say. Yes, I enjoy “serious” books. But I also love a nice, juicy celebrity memoir, and for that I don’t think anything is going to beat Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life. The title alone is ironic since Mr. Richards’ life would have killed most people. He is, as you know, the guitarist for The Rolling Stones, a band known for taking the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle to a whole new level. I fully expect his book will span many genres. Aside from biography, the outrageously colorful things he’s done could easily qualify as science fiction; the fact that he’s still alive and kicking is definitely a medical mystery; and as a self-help book, it could easily be called How NOT to Live Your Life.

I can’t wait to dig in.