The 29-Minute Reading Challenge

Love, according to Nicholas Sparks

I was going to wait at least another week before posting about books again, but then the literary critic in me was sparked by yet another Nicholas Sparks’ book, and I couldn’t resist. I’ve ‘read’ (each in roughly half an hour, so I may not have all my facts straight) “The Choice” and “Message in a Bottle” so far, and I need to rant.

First of all, plot. His average book seems to go along these lines: A man and a woman meet improbably (either she reads a message to his deceased wife in a bottle he threw into the ocean, or the lazy neighbor whose neutered dog she accuses of getting hers pregnant turns out to be a wonderful, caring veterinarian and then wonderful, caring lover); they fall in love, fight off emotions  for chapters on end because of their hangups from past relationships; then they acknowledge their love in long and boring dialogues and are happy for a while, until something terrible happens. NS seems to like car/boat accidents resulting in comas from which one wakes up (in the happily-ending novels), and comas from which one does not wake up (in the tragically ending novels), which I am assuming he alternates so that faithful readers are caught off guard.

Next, characters. If I totaled the number of times I have heard men analyze, dissect and discuss their emotions  during the 25 years of my life, I would probably not come up with enough statements to fill one page of his male protagonist’s musings. And it’s not like the guys I know aren’t sensitive – but even the most feeling ones would be embarrassed to engage in this ‘soul-searching’ babble that goes on for pages. Granted, I remember being annoyed with Young Werther’s toxic navel-gazing moaning and teenage infatuation with a woman he knew was going to be (and eventually was happily) married to another, and I know I wrote in a rather passionate high school essay that he is ‘lifeless and vapid’ and would never succeed in winning any woman with more heart than a goldfish, let alone making her happy. Good grief, man, go slay a dragon, or at least fix your beloved’s car’s engine, anything other than mooning around reciting ancient poetry. But even then I had to admit that at least Werther had the advantage of being one of the first lovestruck teenagers of that type, and his “Sorrows” were written by Goethe, who had vastly more talent than Sparks, although a much smaller readership.

So much for character development and a sense of reality. Onto structure.

The normal structure of a chapter seems to be:

1) Something happens. A dialogue involving much talk about feelings usually qualifies as an event. Either the man or the woman then goes away to meditate on this, complete with flashbacks to their childhood, for the rest of the chapter.

2) The man or the woman meditates, and then they talk about their feelings.

Sure they have jobs, friends, lives and such, but these are always brought into the picture only to illustrate one or the other of the protagonists’ characters. And it’s not like they ever talk about the other people unless they are obstacles to their love.

There are many more bones I have to pick with these books, but I’m sure this ranting will be much more enjoyable in good company.

And so it is, dear reader, that I would like to invite you to join me for the 29-minute Nicholas Sparks’ Reading Challenge. The basic premise of this exciting reading adventure is that the average person is fully capable of skimming through a Nicholas Sparks’ novel, forming a definite idea of the two main characters’ characters (fortunately he rarely focuses in depth on more than the central couple), as well as understanding the plot and summarizing the whole in a paragraph, all of this within 29 minutes.

I do realize that the vast majority of my readers are not on a nice long vacation unemployed like me, and probably have better things to do with their time, but it would make for an enthralling experiment for anyone who spent at least 4 college years buried in foreshadowing, flashbacks and homodiegetic narration is interested in writing, reading, plot development devices and making fun of authors whose popularity we can never hope to achieve. If it turns out I am the only such person in the world, so be it, I will shoulder this burden.

But hope springs eternal, so if you’re interested in taking up the gauntlet, head  over to your local library (please don’t actually buy a book),  set the timer for 29 minutes, and  send me a paragraph summarizing the plot (it should include a few lines describing characters). Before you do so though, leave  a comment in the combox so I know you’re up for it.

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