The Sunday Salon: Abandoning the Quest to Read Everything (and Finishing ‘Special Topics in Calamity Physics’)

by Kim on January 20, 2013 · 42 comments

The Sunday Salon.com Over the last three weeks, I’ve been reminded of the problem with trying to read everything: more often than not, it results me reading absolutely nothing.

I’ve never been a totally monogamous reader. I generally have a couple of books going at a time, either fiction and nonfiction or a physical book and an audio book, for example. And during my various essay a day attempts, I’ve had a book of essays lying around too.

But for the first part of January, I seemed to have five or six or seven books in progress (or, started and then abandoned). As a result, after finishing up two books rather quickly — Arcadia by Lauren Groff and Mastermind by Maria Konnikova — and then had a dry spell where I couldn’t seem to finish anything because I was trying to finish everything. It’s not a good way for me to read.

special topicsThis week I finally had an “enough is enough” moment and decided to focus on finishing at least one book, Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marsha Pessel. There’s sort of an interesting back story to this book. When it came out in 2006 first came out I was really interested, bought a used hard cover at Half Price Books, bought it, and proceeded not to read it.

Somewhere in the last three years, I managed to lose the dust jacket (with the book description); When I decided to read it for my 2013 TBR challenge, I decided not to look up a plot summary before I started and just read the book without knowing anything about the plot. And that was a lot of fun!

Special Topics in Calamity Physics is the story of high school senior Blue van Meer, a well-read but isolated young woman who has traveled the country with her academic superstar father, Gareth. When Gareth agrees to settle down and stay in one place for the duration of her senior year, Blue is ecstatic. She’s quickly drawn into a clique of oddballs known as the Bluebloods who worship their mysterious teacher, Hannah Schneider. But Hannah’s eventually death-by-hanging, set up in the first pages of the book, causes Blue to investigate and question everything she knows.

The most obvious comparison for the book is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, another book about a group of students (this time in college) with a mysterious mentor who commit murder. I’m tempted to do one of those middle school “plot mountains” for both just to see how closely they align, but I’m not sure what that would reveal other than that this is a well-used plot.

What I liked about the book was Blue. She’s deadpan and sarcastic, but also vulnerable enough that you can see her sarcasm is a shield to protect herself from the difficulty of being so transient during her youth. The book is set up as a course syllabus, so each chapter is titled after a book and, I suspect, offers up themes from the book in the chapter. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about that part of it, but it’d be a fun exercise too.

The reviews for this one on Amazon and Goodreads are pretty mixed, and while I see where the criticisms come from, I just wasn’t bothered enough by them to stop reading. I was absorbed by this book from beginning to end, and it kept me up late at night a number of nights in a row. I’m glad I finally read it and, now that it’s finished, I can get myself to focus on one of the many other books I’ve started to try and read this month!

Happy Sunday, everyone! What are you reading today?

{ 40 comments… read them below or add one }

ShaReKay January 20, 2013 at 10:00 am

I read this book several years ago and remember thinking it did beg/borrow/steal quite a bit from The Secret History. I probably need to give it another shot.

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Kim January 21, 2013 at 8:06 pm

It does beg/borrow/steal quite a bit. But there’s enough difference, and Blue is so fun, that I think it’s worth it.

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bermudaonion(Kathy) January 20, 2013 at 10:16 am

I generally read one print book and two audios (one on my phone and one in my car) and that’s about all I can handle at one time. I’m finishing up News From Heaven by Jennifer Haigh today.

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Kim January 21, 2013 at 7:43 pm

I don’t know if I could do more than one audio book at a time, but I guess I haven’t really tried. I usually just listen on my phone, even when I’m driving.

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Ali January 20, 2013 at 10:54 am

I often have a slew of books going at once–in fact, I’ll even forget about a book I was reading until I re-discover it on my shelf or in a book bag I brought with me somewhere (or the library tells me it’s overdue! That’s the worst).

Glad you found one that pulled you right through to the end.

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Kim January 21, 2013 at 7:44 pm

Forget about a book in progress? I try not to let that happen, but with so many books in progress this month I’m sure that’s what happened :)

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Vasilly January 20, 2013 at 12:11 pm

I often have the same problem of trying to read so much at the same time. Right now I’m in the middle of a chunkster and an audio book (The Little Red Guard). I’ve been looking at my tbr pile in an attempt to figure out what to read next. I had no idea what Special Topics in Calamity Physics was about but now, I want to read it. Enjoy the rest of your week.

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Kim January 21, 2013 at 7:46 pm

I love the feeling of getting through a chunkster and getting to start a new book. I can’t quite decide what to read now.

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unfinishedperson January 20, 2013 at 1:05 pm

I’m strictly a monogamous reader. Right now, I’m reading graphic novels, keeping it even simpler than usual.

As for the Pessl book, I have it on my TBR shelf too and have had it there for a while. Right now, it’s glaring at me from the shelf next to me ;).

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Kim January 21, 2013 at 7:47 pm

Ooo, graphic novels. I haven’t read one of those in awhile. I miss the Fables series!

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susan January 20, 2013 at 1:55 pm

I haven’t heard of this one (it sounds interesting) but I did read The Secret History years ago. Does it have that same kind of suspense in it?
Today I’m continuing with the Marriage Plot by Eugenides. cheers.
http://www.thecuecard.com/

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Kim January 21, 2013 at 7:50 pm

It does have a lot of suspense, although I have to admit I was a little bit distracted thinking about how much it was like The Secret History to think about the suspense (until the crazy stuff starts to go down!).

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Athira January 20, 2013 at 5:25 pm

I find that when I read a lot of books at a time, I never manage to finish any. Most get abandoned. I try consciously now not to read more than two at a time. I guess if I had more reading time, I could read more books together, but for now, I’ll have to do with less.

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Kim January 21, 2013 at 7:50 pm

That’s what was happening to me — lots of books started, few finished. I’m glad to feel a little more settled now.

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Susan January 20, 2013 at 6:02 pm

I go through phases – reading a lot, then reading one book at a time. Often though I have a slew of books that I start and don’t finish, and I’m sad to say they are usually non-fiction. One of my goals this year is to fix that stat, or begin too.

I am delighted that you enjoyed Special Topics in Calamity Physics so much, it is a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while too.

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Kim January 21, 2013 at 7:57 pm

I actually tend to abandon nonfiction at a higher rate than fiction too. Maybe it’s because I read more nonfiction anyway, who knows.

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Care January 20, 2013 at 8:21 pm

LOVE your approach to this! I do love going in blind even if I think I knew (or used to know once) what a book is about. And I loved looking at the plot mountain post – thanks for sharing that. I learn a lot from you. I want to read this AND The Secret History someday. Someday.

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Kim January 21, 2013 at 7:58 pm

I miss going into books blind, so this was really fun for me. I need to stop reading plot summaries, I think!

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Andi (@estellasrevenge) January 20, 2013 at 10:30 pm

Glad you decided to focus on Special Topics! I thought it was a lot of fun, and that overshadowed any problems. It’s one of those books with lots of fun, insightful passages too. I marked a lot when I read it.

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Kim January 21, 2013 at 7:59 pm

Absolutely. There were some minor problems, but I enjoyed so much of it that it didn’t seem to matter.

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Penelope January 21, 2013 at 5:29 am

Right now I’m reading A Dog’s Purpose on audiobook. I needed something light after reading very emotionally charged books. I’m also reading a hardcover parenting book & determined not to begin reading anything on my kindle until I’m done with it. I won’t finish it if I begin another. Thanks for sharing!

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Kim January 21, 2013 at 7:59 pm

Good luck getting your books read so you can start some more!

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Heather January 21, 2013 at 8:38 am

I usually have several books going at once – 2 audios (one in the car, one on ipod), an ebook, a fiction book, and a nonfiction or short story collection or chunkster. This typically works for me but I do sometimes get overwhelmed and have to stop and just finish one already!

I have Special Topics in Calamity Physics on my shelf – have for years – and really should get to it one of these days. I’m glad to hear you liked it. And the comparison to A Secret History makes me happy because I LOVED that book.

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Kim January 21, 2013 at 8:00 pm

Wow, that is a lot of books! I hope you like Special Topics when you get a chance to read it.

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Charlie January 21, 2013 at 8:42 am

I’m in a similar place right now, trying to read everything quickly. You end up not wanting to read full stop. Glad you got around it, I’m doing the same at the moment. The story sounds interesting though weird, a group of kids liking a teacher that much sounds odd! I love the sound of the chapter set up and the title is pretty clever.

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Kim January 21, 2013 at 8:02 pm

I was worried that might happen — I’d get so into many books that I’d just give up and watch The West Wing all the time. Hopefully that won’t happen :)

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Sheila (Book Journey) January 21, 2013 at 9:52 am

I always have several books going at a time too… a couple of audio books, a couple books… but right now after a great reading weekend I am clean of books and anxious to start something new. I love the choosing of my next read :)

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Kim January 21, 2013 at 8:03 pm

I love the feeling of a fresh slate. I hope you picked a good one!

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Lu January 21, 2013 at 2:58 pm

I’m right there with you, Kim! I did the same this year. I’ve been reading a lot of different books and without finishing any of them, but I finally sat down and finished a good chunk of them this past week. I’m in the middle of Game of Thrones (still), which is hindering it all a little bit. I’ve been reading it very slowly, which is fine, but also doesn’t make me feel very accomplished!

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Kim January 21, 2013 at 8:03 pm

Ooo, Game of Thrones is good. I loved that one. I think I tore through it in one long weekend. Good luck on finishing :)

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Alex in Leeds January 21, 2013 at 3:30 pm

I tend to have one fiction and one non-fiction on the go at any one time but any more makes me stall and stumble over them.

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Kim January 21, 2013 at 8:05 pm

I think my max is probably three, two print and one audio, but I’m looking to be more monogamous and not test that theory too much :)

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Nikki Steele January 21, 2013 at 9:15 pm

Fantastic — I had no idea what the book was about and, honestly, a bit waylaid by the crazy cover stuff going on but seems like a really interesting plotline, one that I ate up in Secret History.

I just finished Memory of Light (Wheel of Time series) and In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson on audio (super fun). Just started Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception. Obviously I’m a book polygamist as well :D

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Kim January 29, 2013 at 6:38 pm

So many interesting books! I haven’t been pulled into Outlander yet, but it’s tempting.

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Jenny January 23, 2013 at 6:12 pm

Yay, I’m pleased you liked it! I need to reread this, it’s been ages. I wished I’d known more about it when I started reading it — I thought it was setting up to be a coming-of-age story more than a MURDER MYSTERY sort of book. I mean I knew there was a death, but I thought the focus was going to be coming of age.

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Kim January 29, 2013 at 6:38 pm

Yeah, the focus was a little jumbled, but I think it mixed coming-of-age with the whole DEATH thing pretty well. And I do love a good mystery.

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jennygirl January 28, 2013 at 12:21 pm

I’m one “book” away from finishing Middlemarch which is quite the chunkster. I’ve enjoyed it too, but other books come up and I end up putting MM to the side. I need to buckle down and just finish it!

finding unexpected treasures on your shelves is awesome. I know I’ve forgotten what’s on mine. Hope your reading mojo stays with you :)

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Kim January 29, 2013 at 6:39 pm

Good luck with Middlemarch! I think there comes a time in every chunkster where you just have to sit down and finish or it becomes a drag.

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Laurie C January 30, 2013 at 9:18 am

I know what you mean! I’ve been feeling the same way about my habit of reading several books at once lately. I’m going to need to settle down with The Flame Alphabet and The Middlesteins, both of which are pretty short, but I had to be put aside for review books and a book club book.

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Kim February 3, 2013 at 8:22 am

I’ve heard wonderful things about The Middlesteins. I hope you like it!

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