Two-sitting reads

City of Thieves by David Benioff

A few months back, I talked about the books we just can’t seem to get to, that languish in our to-read piles collecting dust bunnies and resenting us. On a contrasting and more positive note, I started thinking about the opposite – the books I’ve been so drawn into and enthralled by that I’ve read them in one or two sittings, while my hands cramp, my elbows go numb from propping me up, and the sun outside rises and sets, rises and sets.

We’ve all had the experience of being unable to step away from a book. I’m (only a little) ashamed to admit I have cancelled plans with friends and family before, weakly fake-coughing into the telephone. “I know, I know,” I’ll say faintly, trying to turn the pages as quietly as possible, “it’s so sudden. A real shame. I hope it’s just a 24-hour bug.”

I’ve spent days at work, watching the clock, anxiously drumming my fingers on my desk and feeling desperately, perversely afraid that somehow, the characters in the book are going on without me, and I’m missing out on the action. Fortunately, they’ve all stayed right where I left them, to date.

I was most recently felled by David Benioff’s City of Thieves, the fictional account of two young men making their way through the bomb-riddled city during the Nazis’ siege of Leningrad in WWII. It was completely riveting, with some of the most engaging characters I’ve come across. I couldn’t stop reading.

What is it that makes a book so captivating that we shirk obligations, risk papercuts, and forget basic necessities like food and water while lost in its pages?

Sometimes it’s a case of well-written suspense, of wanting – no, needing – to know the outcome of the story. It is with no small sense of embarrassment that I confess I read all four of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels in under a week. Aimed at an audience much younger than I, formulaic and predictable, with repetitive, trite writing, I was nevertheless completely unable to stop. “Good Lord,” I’d say aloud, while dialing to cancel my dentist appointment, “these are so bad. She really ought to be ashamed. ” Other women – and at least one man – my age have whispered similar admissions to me, so at least I know I’m not alone.

If an author is inventive and convincing enough, a story can actually make the reader feel like they’ve entered a different universe, with its own customs, superstitions and characters. Tolkien’s The Hobbit had this effect on me. I so enjoyed learning the land, the language and the ways of hobbits that I didn’t want to come up for air until I was finished.

The Harry Potter books did that to a lot of people. With the creativity of: specific spells, magical devices and contraptions, wizarding specialties and a whole imaginary sport, Rowling fans were among the most rabid, waiting in long lines, speculating on internet fan-sites, and devouring each book as quickly as their eyes could scan.

In some cases, we grow to really care about the characters we’re getting to know, and I for one have difficulty abandoning them midway through their story, particularly if the story involves hardship. It makes me feel like when I close the book to go to sleep for the night, they’re stuck there, in the middle of their turmoil, until I choose to start again. To Kill a Mockingbird’s Tom Robinson, the father and son in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the entire Salmon family in The Lovely Bones all had that effect on me, and I chose reading over sleep in each case.

Regardless of the why, this is a phenomenon by no means unique to me. It’s not unusual to spot reading-related dark circles under eyes around here, and my coworkers were only too happy to give me insight into the books they just couldn’t put down.

Books we can't put down

By Ray Bradbury
Internationally acclaimed with more than 5 million copies in print, Fahrenheit 451 is Ray Bradbury's classic novel of censorship and defiance, as resonant today as it was when it was first published nearly 50 years ago.
By Wally Lamb
In this extraordinary coming-of-age odyssey, Wally Lamb invites us to hitch a wild ride on a journey of love, pain, and renewal with the most heartbreakingly comical heroine to come along in years. At once a fragile girl and a hard-edged cynic, so tough to love yet so inimitably lovable, Dolores is as poignantly real as our own imperfections.
By Betty Smith
A novel about a young girl, her family and friends, and their life in the slum section of Brooklyn in the early years of the twentieth century.
By Alice Sebold
"My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973."
So begins the story of Susie Salmon, who is adjusting to her new home in heaven, a place that is not at all what she expected, even as she is watching life on earth continue without her -- her friends trading rumors about her disappearance, her killer trying to cover his tracks, her grief-stricken family unraveling.
By Issac Asmiov
For twelve thousand years the Galactic Empire has ruled supreme. Now it is dying. Only Hari Seldon, creator of the revolutionary science of psychohistory, can see into the future—a dark age of ignorance, barbarism, and warfare that will last thirty thousand years. To preserve knowledge and save humanity, Seldon gathers the best minds in the Empire—both scientists and scholars—and brings them to a bleak planet at the edge of the galaxy to serve as a beacon of hope for future generations. He calls this sanctuary the Foundation.
By Orson Scott Card
Aliens have attacked Earth twice and almost destroyed the human species. To make sure humans win the next encounter, the world government has taken to breeding military geniuses -- and then training them in the arts of war... The early training, not surprisingly, takes the form of 'games'... Ender Wiggin is a genius among geniuses; he wins all the games... He is smart enough to know that time is running out. But is he smart enough to save the planet?
By Cormac McCarthy
The Road is the profoundly moving story of a journey. It boldly imagines a future in which no hope remains, but in which the father and his son, "each the other's world entire," are sustained by love. Awesome in the totality of its vision, it is an unflinching meditation on the worst and the best that we are capable of: ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of total devastation.
By Khaled Hosseini
The unforgettable, heartbreaking story of the unlikely friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father’s servant, caught in the tragic sweep of history, The Kite Runner transports readers to Afghanistan at a tense and crucial moment of change and destruction. A powerful story of friendship, it is also about the power of reading, the price of betrayal, and the possibility of redemption; and an exploration of the power of fathers over sons—their love, their sacrifices, their lies.
By Toni Morrison
They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” So begins Toni Morrison’s Paradise, which opens with a horrifying scene of mass violence and chronicles its genesis in an all-black small town in rural Oklahoma. In prose that soars with the rhythms, grandeur, and tragic arc of an epic poem, Toni Morrison challenges our most fiercely held beliefs as she weaves folklore and history, memory and myth into an unforgettable meditation on race, religion, gender, and a far-off past that is ever present.

By Audrey Niffenegger
This is the celebrated tale of Henry DeTamble, a dashing, adventuresome librarian who inadvertently travels through time, and Clare Abshire, an artist whose life takes a natural sequential course. Henry and Clare’s passionate affair endures across a sea of time and captures them in an impossibly romantic trap that tests the strength of fate and basks in the bonds of love.


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