Riding the Donkey Carriage

Are you guilty of this?

A new literary term is needed. It’s something we’re all guilty of, but are rarely willing to admit to. We’ll make excuses or get all defensive about it, because it makes us look like lazy, illiterate zombies watching Walking Dead. I am guilty of it myself, despite my dedication to the written word. So what am I talking about?

For my 27th birthday, the girl who would become my wife got me a stack of books. Knowing I was a writer and avid reader, she figured it would make a great present, and it was. Being from French speaking Morocco, she is partial to the French classics, and among her favorites is little known, Pere Goriot by Balzac, and the much better known, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas. At close to a thousand pages, Cristo is a hefty title, but it has political intrigue, romantic triangles, hidden treasure, pirates, revenge, and the most amazing prison escape in literary history. About halfway through, a shipping business loses a galley and all its valuable cargo at sea. Despondent over the loss, father and son are ready to shoot their brains out with flintlock pistols, when suddenly, the missing ship pulls into port! How? Why? Their mysterious benefactor is none other than the newly wealthy and presumed dead Count of Monte Cristo. The scene had me watery eyed and wanting to read more, until the donkey carriage segment begins, where the reader is forced through a hundred or so pages about two guys in search of a horse-drawn carriage. Since no horses are available, they settle for donkeys, and it goes on and on and on. Much later, the two guys meet up with the count, but the donkey carriage chapters were so dull and irrelevant, it made me quit reading, and there my bookmark has been sitting, halfway through The Count of Monte Cristo, for ten years. So I would like to propose a new term:

Riding the Donkey Carriage: An expression used to indicate a person who quits reading a book before the book concludes. Typically, the person intends to finish the book at some indefinite time in the future, but more often than not, never does.

Example, “How’s that book you were reading?”

“Oh, I’m really riding the donkey carriage on that one.”

Why we do this varies from person to person and book to book. I rode the donkey carriage twice before finishing The Lord of the Rings. I am also finding myself riding the donkey carriage with George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire; currently, I am stuck on the third book, A Storm of Swords. Very rarely do I come across a book I simply cannot stop reading. Those are sometimes the best books, but not always. Often, the payoff isn’t as great as I anticipate; The Golden Compass and The Hunger Games series come to mind. Other times, you push yourself through a dense forest of pages only to be pleasantly surprised and satisfied by the conclusion. The Lord of the Rings is the best example.

When events in a story don’t seem to have much consequence to the overall plot, or when the characters are just too difficult to relate to or care about, I typically end up on the donkey carriage. One reason I gave up on Amber, despite the author’s superb writing style, was the uncharismatic nature of his one and only main character. Someday, I may get off that donkey cart and finish The Count of Monte Cristo, but I don’t think that, as readers, we should be ashamed to admit we spent our time watching Breaking Bad instead. TV and video games really can be more interesting than books. It’s up to the writer to keep us engaged, to sell us with the power of his story. No matter the medium, a good story told well is always worth the effort.

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