Monday, October 20, 2008

Unfinished Books

At some point every serious reader has to ponder the question “How much more of this awful book do I have to read?” Personally, I’ve never been able to figure out exactly when I can abandon a book with a good conscience. There are simply too many very long and very bad books for me to finish every one I start, and each hour trapped with a bad book is an hour not spent enjoying a good one. So a line has to be drawn somewhere. But where? After the first 50 pages? After the first 10% of the book? Or should I give it 25%. I don’t know. On some level I feel that I should finish every book I start regardless of whether I like it or not. After all, sometimes when I stick with a book I wind up enjoying it in the end. That’s especially true with novels. I was about 300 pages into Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady before I realized how brilliant it (and he (and, yes, she)) was. I had a similar experience with The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes. Only about two-thirds of the way through it did I begin to understand and appreciate what Fuentes was doing. This can also work to a book’s detriment, too. I just read Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination and was liking it just fine until, in the last 10 pages, I came across a passage so inane, foolish, and flat-out wrong that I had no choice but to reject the previous 294 pages I’d read as pure, undiluted crapola. But these instances are the exceptions. Most of the times I can tell within the first 50 pages whether or not I’m going to like a book. Which books we don’t finish and why can tell us as much about the reading experience (and the reader) as knowing which ones they do finish. Here, then, are some of the recent books I have started and then abandoned – together with how much of them I read and my assessment of the likelihood that I will ever return to them.

The History of the Thirteen by Honoré de Balzac. Christ, what a slog. I’ve been reading a lot of Balzac this year. Maybe too much. This novel is actually composed of three short novellas, all of which tangentially touch on the dark and nefarious doings of a secret, powerful group called The Thirteen. I made it through “Ferragus”, the first one, without a problem, but it was in the second part, “The Duchesse of Langeais”, that I lost it. Suddenly it was page after page of Balzac’s theorizings on the decline of the French aristocracy or the psychology of women or the sacred mysteries of organ music or some other equally irrelevant topic of which he knows nothing. It was very annoying. Just shut up and tell your story, Balzac, or better yet, shut up, just shut up. Abandoned on page 218 out of 391. Chance of return: medium (well, it is Balzac).

Credit and Blame by Charles Tilley. Tilley is an eminent American sociologist and this book examines the social processes by which blame and credit are apportioned out. Sure sounds interesting. And it was interesting up to a point. I liked Tilley’s observation that giving credit presupposes similar values between the credit-giver and the credited; whereas blame often involves differing moral views between the person being blamed and the one blaming; there’s a deeper, more cognitive dimension to blame. This brief book is well-written; it’s clear and jargon free. Tilley’s examples extended from the founding fathers to African witchcraft to Joan Crawford’s efforts to win the Oscar for Mildred Pierce. This book has a lot going for it. Why I couldn’t get into it, I don’t know. I think I might have stuck with this book if it was more difficult. When I picked it up I was looking for something tough and analytical and scientific and almost Germanic in its unappealing thoroughness. Tilley’s loose, essayistic approach was the opposite of what I was looking for. Abandoned on page 30 out of 190 pages. Chance of return: low.

The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec by Mary Ellen Miller. What the hell? Why did I even buy this book? Abandoned by page 42 of 247. Chance of return: Zero.

In Hazard by Richard Hughes. Every now and then I try to read one of those sea-faring adventure novels but it never works out. This novel by Hughes (first published in 1938) is the latest casualty in that personal tradition; earlier ones include Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and Typhoon as well as the Aubrey/Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brien. The problem is always the same: I get bogged down looking up all the nautical terms (aft, port, stern, mizzen mast, winches, fore-deck, stretching-screw, mast-stay, etc.) and eventually I’m pawing through the dictionary for hours while my actual reading comes to a crawl. I hate that. It’s frustrating. I like novels – and especially adventure novels – to move briskly. Nonetheless, if you like that whole ship-in-a-storm genre, this book is for you. It’s the story (based on a true incident) of a British cargo ship which gets caught in what seems to be the worst hurricane ever (winds of 200+ mph) in the Caribbean during the 1920s. The characters are well-drawn and Hughes is masterful at building up suspense. The air of the book is ominous; we sense from the start that everything that can go wrong will. Hughes also adds some surreal touches to the story. For instance, Mr. Buxton, the ship’s Chief Officer, has a pet lemur named Thomas who has free run of the ship.

This little Thomas slept all day, and he was not very energetic even at night. But he had one prejudice. He liked the human eye, and he did not approve of it being shut, ever. If he came into Mr. Buxton’s cabin while his master was asleep he would jump carefully on to the edge of the bunk, and then with anxious and delicate movements of his long fingers he would lift the sleeping man’s eyelids till the ball was fully exposed. This he would do to other deck officers too, if he found them (to his distress) with their eyes shut at night upon any excuse whatever.
Abandoned on page 83 out of 239 pages. Chance of return: low.

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