I have considered giving up, at some point, nearly every book that I have read recently. I don’t think it’s a general weariness with reading, I just think that I’m not getting the mix of fiction/non-fiction, fantastical-fiction/realistic-fiction correct at the moment and that I’m reading books when I’m not in the mood for them. Abandoning a book is actually quite rare thing for me as I can usually determine whether I’m going to like it or not, and I can decide what type of book it is and what approach needs to be taken with it; even if I get it wrong I can usually change my approach and reading tactics in order to finish it. But this year I’ve given up on quite a few books.
Let’s look at a few. I started reading Waterloo by Tim Clancy earlier this year, because it was the bicentennial of the battle and because I do have an interest in the whole period from the French revolution through to Napoleon’s rise to power and beyond. But a military history of the battle? What was I thinking? I’ve tried and abandoned other military history books before this one such as Caesar’s books, books on Stalingrad etc. I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in the troop movements of such and such a company, what the conditions were like on the battlefield, what division flanked what side of the frontline. So what was I thinking when I decided it would be a good idea to read it? Why start reading a book on military history when I have no interest in military history whatsoever? Beats me.
Another bad decision was to read Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Again, I have had bad experiences with Pynchon in the past as I have previously given up on V and Gravity’s Rainbow; I did actually finish Vineland years ago but all I can remember about it is that I didn’t think much of it. On Wikipedia Mason & Dixon is described as a ‘sprawling postmodern saga’ which should have been enough to steer me away from it. What I dislike about his writing is the sheer pointlessness of it all, together with all the little insider jokes and narrative tricks that do nothing but alienate the reader – any plot is buried deep down, the characters are just wooden and one-dimensional and the narrative style is about as interesting as reading an operator’s manual. As such, my reading slowed down more and more until it was an effort to advance forward a single page. I can’t stand books where the author hides behind all these little techniques that are supposed to convince us that they’re really clever. It is the same with Joyce, but not with Beckett. With Beckett the tricks he uses, in Watt for example, are amusing and yes, genuinely clever. In the end does it just come down to personal choice? I think Beckett became better when he escaped from Joyce’s influence and his style became sparser and he stopped trying to be so clever.
I also officially ended my reading of Finnegans Wake this year. It was when I decided to finish with Mason & Dixon that I also decided to clear out all this postmodern ‘junk’ that was taking up space and time in my life. Admittedly, I never really thought I’d finish Finnegans Wake as I hadn’t really decided to start reading it; I had just got into the habit of reading a page or so every once in a while. I really find it difficult to accept that people genuinely like this book. I have to assume that they claim to like it because they don’t understand it and are fearful of being called a literary heathen or idiot if they admit that they don’t like it. When I was a teenager I got caught up in the William Burroughs adulation; I thought I liked his work because he was a cool person and other cool people said that it was brilliant. It isn’t. Most of it is crap, and the same can be said for Joyce, IMO.
I have also ‘paused’ my reading of Zola’s Rome, which is the second book in his Three Cities trilogy. Again, I was taking longer and longer to read a page of this book and I couldn’t believe just how dull it was – see my review of the first half here. I intend to continue my reading of it, partly as a mark of respect for all his other truly great books and because I still plan to read the final, and hopefully better, book of the series, Paris. I know that I should just abandon it but I will persevere and no doubt regret it.
There are other books that I have abandoned; that weren’t abandoned because they were bad but because they were so good. The book that springs immediately to mind is Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, it’s a modern look into the rationality of ethics and identity. I only ever read the first part on ‘Reasons’ but was totally blown away with it. Unlike other philosphy books that I’d tried, I was impressed with the author’s clarity of thought and (more importantly for me) his clarity of presentation. It was a book that clearly contained insightful views on ethics and philosophy and so I wanted to be able to dedicate myself fully to reading the second part, ‘Persons’; of course I never had the time and now it just sits on my ‘Abandoned and interrupted’ shelf on GoodReads, waiting for the day when I shall return to it. I intend to, I really do.
For years I thought I was a member of that exclusive club of people that have read the entire set of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I had the rather impressive Everyman’s Library set of six hardback books but a few years ago I decided, for reasons of space, to sell them. I had since bought a kindle version and reasoned that I’d probably never re-read them. It was only when I was selling them that I found my bookmark in the middle of volume six and remembered that I hadn’t actually finished that final volume because I’d started at university and just didn’t have the time to devote to it. Damn, and now it’s gnawing away at me to finish the final volume….or shall I ‘just’ re-read the whole thing? Oh, and I also regret selling the physical copies I had; after all, who would want to read ‘Decline & Fall’ on a kindle?
There are many others I could choose to look at, such as The Koran which I’ve tried to read at least three times, but I think I’ll end this post here. I think I’ve had more ‘failures’ this year than previous years because my choices are being influenced increasingly by what I think I ‘should’ read rather than what I ‘want’ to read. I’m going to re-evaluate those books that are currently on my TBR lists, sort out those I genuinely want to read and knuckle down…..well, that’s the plan.
Have you abandoned any books this year? Do you have any that you’ve been meaning to finish for years?