I’ve always been a fickle reader. If I’m not enjoying a book at any point, I have no problem putting it down. Sometimes I even abandon books I am enjoying – maybe because I have other reading I have to do for work (this was back when I was teaching – unless one counts this blog as “work,” which I don’t) or because I need to switch to something lighter to accommodate a stressful or busy schedule, or even because a new book comes out and I don’t want to wait and finish the first book before moving on to the new one. As I said, I’m fickle.
About three years before we started this blog, I started keeping track of every book I read. After adding two books (Lalita Tademy’s Cane River and Jason Brown’s Why the Devil Chose New England for his Work) to the list and then not finishing them, I made a rule that I could not add a book to my list until after I had finished it. This was the first time in my life that I even considered being hard on myself for not finishing books.
I know so many people who say they feel “guilty” for giving up on books. I can’t sympathize at all. I don’t see reading as a moral activity. We can improve ourselves through reading in the sense that we can learn new information, develop patience, learn to empathize with other people, etc., but we can learn these things in other ways too. Reading itself is value neutral, and while I abandon fewer books now than I used to, I still don’t feel “guilty” or otherwise unpleasant when I do so.
I do, however, have the tendency to drive myself crazy by reading lots of books at a time. This blog contributes to this habit, since we always have multiple challenges going on – and even when I’m not enjoying a book I sometimes want to finish it so I can be all scathing and witty in my review. But lately I’ve been thinking that I’ll be a little happier if I’m less hesitant to declare a book abandoned. So at the end of each month or the beginning of the next month, I’m planning to report in on the books I abandoned over the course of that month. This way, I’ll get a chance to be witty and scathing if I so desire, and I can provide some comfort and encouragement to other book-abandoners out there who might be feeling guilty. Because really, there’s no reason for that.
Books Abandoned in February (in no particular order):
Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. To be honest, I abandoned this book long before February – I think it was December or even November – yet this is the only book on this list that is still sitting spread-eagled and spine-up (on top of a pile of yarn, no less), waiting to be picked up again. I really did enjoy the first half of this book, although some of its characters were much more interesting than others, and the chapters containing the less interesting characters could be awfully interminable. But the main reason I abandoned it, I think, is that in the time since it was written in 1987, its plot has become very familiar. This is a novel in which two black teenagers in the Bronx start out about their day while an obscenely rich white Wall Street asshole starts out about his day (and other characters do too – this novel gets off to a slow start), and fate leads these characters to a road running under a freeway overpass and a series of events leads to a situation in which one of the black teenagers has been killed by the Wall Street asshole’s car (which is being driven by his mistress). I have a history of enjoying this kind of novel (and this kind of movie too – there have been several; the most famous is probably Crash), but I’ve just read too many of them, and I know that nothing good is going to come to any of these characters. I’m not the sort of reader who wants books to have happy endings, but it’s hard to read a book that follows such a predictable plot structure and offers its characters not even a chance at vindication. I abandoned this book at the halfway point. Of all the books on this list, this is the one about which I most resist using the word “abandoned.” I still entertain a small hope that I will finish it. But I have been entertaining that hope for a very, very long time.
Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. This book (which Mailer called a “true-life novel,” which sounds so fifth-grade-girlish coming from such a hard-drinkin’, hard-livin’ novelist that I had trouble taking it seriously) is about the life, crimes, punishment, and eventual execution of Gary Gilmore. I was engrossed in the first hundred pages or so, in which Gilmore is released from prison and moves to Utah to live with a cousin he hadn’t seen since childhood and ingratiates himself into the lives of any number of sad, pathetic people. Gilmore soon finds a girlfriend – Nicole, a twice-divorced nineteen year-old with two kids – and a handful of lowlife friends, and he unenthusiastically has a couple of jobs and gets drunk on just about every page and never, ever learns anything. I suppose this is a problem implicit to a “true-life novel” about an executed criminal – the reader understands that the protagonist will not experience the growth and change one usually expects from a protagonist. I suppose the growth and change in a novel like this one happens more profoundly in the reader, as we get inside the consciousness of an unrepentant criminal. But in the 200 or so pages I read of this novel (which is over 1000 pages in length), I never felt that I was inside Gary Gilmore’s head. Mailer’s style is half early Hemingway and half police report. Just the facts, ma’am – when in fact no novel needs more than this one to transcend the facts. I enjoyed a certain voyeuristic thrill in the first hundred or so pages, but then I stopped being to tell the various drunken lowlifes apart and I had to stop. This is the third Norman Mailer novel I’ve abandoned in my reading career; I’ve yet to finish a single one.
Anne Tyler’s Noah’s Compass. Recently a new acquaintance told me that Anne Tyler was her favorite novelist, and I realized that for years and years I had forgotten that she exists. I loved her books and read many of them for pleasure when I was in college: Saint Maybe, Breathing Lessons, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, The Accidental Tourist, and so forth. The late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s were sort of a golden age for Anne Tyler, and I lost interest when I started reading her earlier and later work. At some point, though, I ended up with a hardback copy of her 2010 novel, Noah’s Compass. I had no idea whether this novel was generally well reviewed or not; in fact, I still don’t know. But recently I thought that in honor of her most recent novel – which I’ve read about on Amazon but haven’t bought and don’t plan to – I would pick up Noah’s Compass. This novel is about a somewhat-elderly man (maybe 60? Not super elderly) who retires from teaching and moves into a tiny condo. He hires a former student and some other local kids to help him move, and then when the helpers have left he unpacks everything he owns (in maybe two hours!) and then has nothing to do, and then he goes to bed. That’s the end of chapter 1, and that’s where I stopped reading. It all came rushing back, and I remembered why I stopped reading Anne Tyler: she writes about adults with nothing to do. I find absolutely no common humanity with adults who get bored. I don’t understand the concept. I know that as someone who reads and writes and knits, I am perhaps more comfortable with down time at home than other people are – but my God! There’s a whole world out there. Get in the car and go to a movie. Take a walk. Go to a store. Get a couple of cats and only one litterbox and watch them fight each other over restroom privileges. Whatever. This is the same quality that makes me churlish when I read Margaret Drabble – in fact, I abandoned one of her books for the same reason back in maybe October.
Heidi Julavits’ The Vanishers. You’re going to laugh at this one. I bought this novel a while ago at a used-book store on the basis of the blurb on the back cover, which seemed to say that the protagonist attends an elite school for physics. I was intrigued at the idea of a single-subject school – and while I was never much of a physics student myself I often enjoy novels with scientific themes. I thought this novel might be yet another addition to the rapidly-growing canon of dystopian/apocalyptic fiction, and, if so, more power to it. One day last week I was looking for a book to stick in my purse in case there was a nuclear meltdown and I ran out of reading material in wherever I was waiting it out – and I picked up this book, read the back cover, was intrigued by the elite academy for physics all over again, and popped the book in my purse. But then when I pulled it out to read it, it took me all of two paragraphs to realize that the elite academy for physics is actually an elite academy for psychics. At which point I wanted nothing more to do with it. The book is back on the shelf and will likely remain there for a long, long time.
And finally… the book that fried my Kindle: Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair. In October of last year, Jill and I each recommended two books to each other, with the goal of reading them and writing about them sometime between now and Purgatory. The books she recommended to me are Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, which I have owned for some time as a Kindle book. I probably bought it on a $1.99 sale at some point, even though I suspected that it would not quite be my cup of tea. But I did sit down to read it at some point before February – either December or January – and the minute I opened the Kindle book my screen went blank, and then it went to its usual screen saver except that the screen saver was blinking, and then it went to my home page, except that all of the books were displayed as being about 50 pages long (for non-Kindle users, this involves a series of dots under the book title – a short series of dots for short books and a long series of dots for long books), and then finally I got back to The Eyre Affair, except that I could only access the first few pages and turning from one page to another took about 20 seconds. Unfortunately, this problem is not limited to The Eyre Affair; all of my Kindle books are now only a few pages long – which is why I’m in the market for a new Kindle.
But enough complaining. Electronics come and go – whatever. Soon after my Kindle meltdown, I checked The Eyre Affair out from the public library. I hoped that the unpleasant parts of this reading experience were behind me – but unfortunately this was not the case. I am treading lightly here, because I really want my friendship with Jill to survive this book review – but I really can’t stand this book. It just has no basis in anything real for me. The premise is that the protagonist is a low-level bureaucrat in some kind of pseudo-Orwellian world (it’s set in 1985 London, and there are lots of creepy Ministries with euphemistic names), and the protagonist is tapped to join some special-secret ministry where she somehow gets to go inside Jane Eyre and rescue someone. Obviously I am being flip – there is more to the book than this. But reading it (and I only made it through about 50 pages) was like sitting down to an interminable dinner with someone who is convinced that he/she is extremely witty and funny and pauses after every sentence to give you a chance to laugh but never seems to notice when you just sit there and look at your watch. I’ve barely even stepped inside his world (as you probably know, this novel has many sequels), but I can already tell that Jasper Fforde thinks he is very, very funny. I can see his big exposed horsey teeth now, waiting for me to join in his self-induced mirth. And while we’re on the subject of Jasper Fforde, what’s the deal with the two F’s? “Ford” only has one F. Is that not just a thing people know?
So, Jill – I really, really do want to finish this book. I promise that I will try again. But first I’m going to read every single other book in every single other challenge we’ve set for ourselves, including the Numbers Challenge and the Countdown to Concision challenge, and let’s not forget Paradise Lost from the A.P. challenge. Once I’ve finished every other book challenge, I will come back to this one, I promise.
P.S. Please don’t be mad.
P.P.S. Disregard what I said earlier: maybe I do sometimes feel guilty about abandoning books. But only sometimes.