Once upon a time, I would not even consider quitting a book mid-read. Reading a book was not unlike a monogamous human relationship in that sense; it involved conscious commitment, and fidelity: Book, I’m going to read you.
Over the years, this has changed. Recently it struck me that the list of books I’ve started and not finished has grown quite formidable. I ask myself what this “means,” if it reflects some kind of moral devolution. It’s interesting how there does seem to be a kind of morality of reading, and people express their reading values quite passionately.
One of my favorite Millions Quizzes was “The Glaring Gap,” a post in which regular contributors confessed which Great Books / Great Authors they’ve never read. One contributor shared that she consciously chose not to read a certain category of male writers, and the comments came a-flying: oh, but you “should” read those! Should should should. Even the word “confess” implies sheepishness, shame and guilt. I know, I know, I should read (and love) Proust! And Dickens! And Virginia Woolf! And (these days) Bolaño!
My commitment to finishing books in the past was probably related to the above – fear of ensuing guilt and shame. Failure, too, I suppose. And perhaps at this point in my reading life, I’ve finished (and more than that, really ingested into my mind and emotions) enough books so that I feel a little freer in exercising the right to choose how to invest my reading time and energy; to veer from the Canonical Path – if such a thing actually exists anymore – and forge my own highly specific map of literary experience and influence. I’m not getting any younger, after all. Fifteen hours – the average it takes to read a book (and I tend to be on the slow side of this average) – is an increasingly precious chunk of time. Professional book reviewers, you have my sympathies.
My list of Unfinished Books breaks down into a few categories.
Perusing my list – from the last 3 or 4 years – reminds me that the convergence between book and reader is so specific; of-the-moment; contextual. For me, abandoning a book often has little to do with the book’s “objective quality,” and much more to do with the nature of my reading appetite at that moment. As a writer, there are books that you need during certain seasons of your own work, and others that must be held at bay, for the time being, or perhaps, but hopefully not, forever (oh, how the Bitch Goddess Time precludes so many returns to books we’d like to try again):
Books I Did Not Finish But Very Much Want to Try Again
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
2666 by Roberto Bolano
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (out of reverence for Susan Sontag)
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
The Essential Kierkegaard
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
Eugene Onegin by Pushkin
Then there are the books that you feel you “should” like — you’ve adored this writer’s other books, your most trusted reader-friend recommended it, etc. – and you can’t figure out what the disconnect is. You’ve tried and tried again, 50 pages, 75 pages, 120 pages, but for whatever reason… it’s like the blind date that looks perfect “on paper,” but the chemistry never happens:
Books That I’ve Already Tried More Than Once But Couldn’t Engage With, I Don’t Know Why
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
The Book of Daniel and City of God by E.L. Doctorow (I am a Doctorow acolyte, these were particularly painful to abandon)
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence (I loved Women in Love so much)
It’s not that often that I really toss a book away and wipe my hands of it. And I know the following books are critically acclaimed and/or beloved by many. What can I say…
Books That I Found Mostly Painful and Likely Will Not Revisit
The following category speaks for itself:
Books Written By Friends/Acquaintances That I May Have Been Destined Not to Like in the First Place, But Gave Them a Try For Friendship’s Sake
I won’t be listing these, for obvious reasons. There aren’t many, but it’s an awkward thing for all of us; and I never imagine that a person who knows and supports me will necessarily like my fiction.
Now, onto books that I’ve nearly abandoned or considered abandoning, but actually finished.
“Should” is generally a battle between instinct and logic, id and superego. An allegory of sorts: when I was in high school, I was moderately athletic, but in a limited way; I ended up as a quintessential starting JV player on all my teams, never quite attaining to Varsity level. But one year, my senior year, I thought that I really “should” push myself, to get to that next level, to pursue some kind of fullness of achievement; even though I was enjoying perfectly all the playing time I was getting and never considered athleticism a central part of my identity. So I went out for Varsity, just barely made the team, and spent the rest of the season miserably subjecting myself to the coach’s masochistic training drills and sitting on the bench during games. I had thought that if I pushed myself, it would be “worth it” in some spiritual-existential way. It absolutely was not. I think about that experience often, and the metaphor pertains to the following list:
Shlogged Through and Almost Abandoned, But Kept On; No Pay-off, I Felt, In the End
The Accidental by Ali Smith
Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner
Sweetwater by Roxana Robinson
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
Run by Ann Patchett
This final list is perhaps most significant, in terms of our moral quandary. This list keeps me from indulging appetite exclusively, from missing out on the pleasures of a difficult, not-immediately-or-obviously-gratifying read. I can’t imagine not having read these books; abandoning any one of them permanently really would have been a crying shame.
In particular, Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods was an odd, and revelatory experience. I found the first 40 pages brilliant and alive and ground-shifting in that all-cylinders-firing way; then I found the next almost-150 pages tedious, repetitive, gimmicky; almost unbearable. Book, I’m going to quit you, I remember consciously thinking. But something made me pick it up again – all the acclaim, the voices of smart reader-friends in my head, my long-standing admiration of The Things They Carried; and also, I like to think, something more mysterious, my personal book fairy, who nudges me from category 3 above to this one, guiding and protecting me from tragically missed literary connections. So then, my God, those last 75 pages or so of In the Lake of the Woods – how it all comes together and wrecks you, shows you all the work that the previous 150 pages was doing. This is the novel that always pokes into my consciousness when I am considering quitting a book; but maybe this one will be another O’Brien miracle.
Struggled Through, Maybe Put Down For a While, But Finished and Am Very Glad I Did
In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The Names by Don Delillo
A Defense of Ardor: Essays by Adam Zagajewksi
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
I can imagine a day when the proportions of these lists begin to shift. If you’re like me – neither young nor old – you feel a pressure, like every reading minute counts, in a way that you don’t feel as much when you’re younger, and perhaps I won’t feel in quite the same way when I am older. I have no way of knowing, really, if category 3 (or even category 4), past, present or future, actually contains The One That Got Away, the book that may have changed my life. To the books and writers that I’ve broken up with, I truly am sorry it didn’t work out; it is always at least a little bit true that it’s not you, it’s me.
Last week you guys left some excellent recommendations for World War II books on my post about Rick Atikinson’s An Army At Dawn. As promised, here is a post devoted to those recommendations. These books all sound great; I know I’ll be bookmarking this post and selecting books from it for years to come. I was especially excited by the number of novels that were recommended, so I’ll start with a post about those before moving on to non-fiction tomorrow.Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis De Bernieres was recommended by a couple of people. An anonymous commenter wrote that the book “is the story of a Greek island that comes under the control of the Italians and then the Germans in WWII. It’s a fantastic read and one of those relatively untold stories of the war you were mentioning.” Steve recommends some intriguing genre fiction that takes place during the war era: “Philip Kerr wrote three detective novels that have been anthologized under the title Berlin Noir. They are set in Berlin in 1933, 1938 or so (just prior to Kristallnacht) and in post-war Berlin around 1946. Spectacular – Kerr hasn’t written anything close to this good since, but these are just fantastic. The changes in German society over the course of the three books are worth the price of admission by themselves, and the stories are quite good.” Steve also recommends J. Robert Janes, Alan Furst, and Eric Ambler along those same lines.Don Napoli reminds about some classic novels that center on the war: The Naked and The Dead by Norman Mailer, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw, The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk, A Bell for Adano by John Hersey, Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener, Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens, and A Walk in the Sun by Harry Brown. To that list, I would add Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.The Happy Booker suggests Articles of War by Nick Arvin: “This new novel was inspired by Arvin’s grandfather’s service in WWll. I’ve heard it compared to Red Badge of Courage.” And finally, Kate S. suggests Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, and S. Dougherty suggests The Book Thief by Markus Zuzek. So, non-fiction will be up tomorrow. Thanks for all the great suggestions and if anyone wants to make this list a work in progress, feel free to suggest more books in the comments.Update: Laurie suggests The Thin Red Line by James Jones. She also proposes that we look to other countries for fiction about the war. For a Russian view, try Life & Fate by Vasily Grossman, a thick novel on the siege of Stalingrad finished in 1959 that never saw print in Russia in his lifetime. Along those lines I’d also suggest Vassily Aksynov’s Generations of Winter, a sprawling Russian epic, the last part of which takes place during the war. I wrote about it last year. Laurie also points to a terrific bibliography of World War II novels from a community college library in Kansas City.Update 2: A new World War II novel has just come out. It’s called Suite Francaise and it’s by Irene Nemirovsky. The book consists of the first two parts of what was intended to be a five-novel suite about the war in France. Nemirovsky started the book in 1940 but in the summer of 1942 she was sent to Auschwitz where she died. Her manuscript surfaced after being lost for more than 60 years. Scott read the book and liked it.See Also: World War 2 Nonfiction