Unfinished Business

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 Waterloorevolution 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 Pynchon_Mason-Dixonpointlessness 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 Finnegans Wake‘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 Zola_Rome_fcX-700pxCities 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 Parfit Reasons and PersonssPersons, 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 Gibbon-Decline-and-Fall-01_reducedkindle 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?

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20 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Non-fiction

20 responses to “Unfinished Business

  1. I really understand what you are talking about. The same thing happened to me earlier this fall. It felt like I didn’t like just about every book I tried and abandoned a large number of books. I ended up going back to some classics before I finally got on track.

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    • Jonathan

      Whenever I felt like this in the past I would fall back to certain authors that I could rely on. But this time I have persisted with new works but with varied success.

      I actually started writing a post for GLM about a Theodor Storm story but it ended up as this. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, let me see, Jan Morris’ Hav? I also tried to read Little, Big by John Crowley with a read-along and did not get past the first part. Ten years ago I might have loved it, but it was not for me. I suspect I should forego read-along projects… the month always seems so long at the beginning. I am pretty sure I won’t get through The Rider on the White Horse either, but that one I can see making my way through, as story at a time, when I need a change of pace. I do have some longer history/memoir works on the go (both South Africa related) but I am content to take my time with those. But my all time brick wall read is Crime and Punishment. Three times now and counting, but I can’t get past part 1. Each time I re-read I think, oh this is good until I realize I just don’t think I want to spend the rest of the book with those characters. And yet so many people I admire see that as an essential read. I will go back someday, but for now I’ll take The Idiot which I do love! To each his own, in the end you have to read for yourself first.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      Oh God, I’d forgotten about Hav; yes that was a struggle. I read the first part and so I counted that as a succesful read 🙂 I’m surprised about C&P as that is/was (I read it 20 years ago) one of my favourite books. It just goes to show how personal it can be.

      The thing is if I’m truthful to myself I can usually tell beforehand whether a book is going to appeal to me or not. The problem is that I convince myself that it’s going to be good (it’s won a prize, other people like it, it’s got good reviews, a film’s been made etc.) and then I soldier on. And I then find it difficult to understand why some of my favourite authors are disliked or ignored by others. Oh well, vive la difference. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I haven’t had very many DNFs, but that’s probably because I was never brave enough to start books like Waterloo, Mason & Dixon, Finnegans Wake or Gibbon’s massive Roman History. So I can’t really give myself too much credit, lol.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I suppose I shouldn’t be too bothered about abandoning M&D and FW because basically I didn’t like them, but I’ve even felt like giving up on books recently that I know I should like.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Your Waterloo experience made me chuckle. This would fall into the category for me of books I think would be good to read because they fill in a gap in my knowledge. But realistically I cannot face the idea of reading history late at night just before going to sleep so they never get read. I do abandon books if they’re not working. Ive been reading Canterbury Tales now for two years .. not sure if i will ever finish it

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    • Jonathan

      I think I’d been ‘reading’ FW for a couple of years before I finally ditched it.

      I like reading history but not military history. I can just about take it on TV. I suppose I’m not concerned with the details of the battles I just want a summary of events and the effects of it. After I abandoned Waterloo I off-loaded some Stalingrad books as well.

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  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I abandon more than I used to nowadays, because I used to make it a point of honour always to finish a book. Now I figure it’s a waste of time! There’s always a danger in going a bit outside your comfort and reading what you think you ought to read. I’m trying to stick to what I really think I want to read and it usually works….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I think I’m coming round to your point of view, re abandoning books. One thing I started doing a few years ago was to read summaries of books that I felt that I ‘should’ read but couldn’t be actually botheted to read. That approach sort of worked so maybe I should return to it, then I could concentrate on ones I really want to read.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. After all the media hype, I started to read Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, but I couldn’t finish it. Maybe it was me, maybe it was the circumstances, but most probably there was something about the book I found somehow repelling without being able to tell you what exactly it was, there was something that sounded wrong in the book. Not that she cannot write, but I thought on every page: “look, how clever!”, but that’s not enough to interest me in such a very long book. – I also gave up once upon a time a Thomas Mann novel, Joseph and his Brothers, but I will tackle it again very soon. In that case I couldn’t devote enough time for reading every day and this is definitely a work you should start only when you are sure you can read 100-150 chunks a day without longer interruptions. Otherwise you will lose probably track of parts of the story and that will spoil the book at least partly for a reader. – Ok, and then there are cases where you abandon a book just because it is badly written, boring, or otherwise seriously deficient. Ernest Hemingway’s Fiesta. The Sun Also Rises comes to mind. (Which I have finished with a lot of effort and self-control after two abandoned reading attempts; still I consider it one of the worst books I read in ages – only Paulo Coelho was slightly worse.)

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    • Jonathan

      I’ve heard a few people say they’d given up on The Goldfinch; the book doesn’t really appeal to me so I’m unsure if I’ll ever try it.

      I think sometimes I’m just not in the mood for a certain book, which is what I think my main problem is at the moment as I’m forcing myself to read more fiction than I otherwise would, mainly because of group reads etc. – I naturally tend to vary my reading quite a bit. I gave up on Midnight’s Children many years ago but when I read it a few years ago I loved it, so I don’t always give up on a book entirely. I wonder if I’ll ever feel that way about Pynchon though as I think I’ve now acquired an (irrational?) hatred of all things Pynchon. It’s strange because one of my favourite authors is Paul Auster and yet other people’s negative comments towards his works are similar to my negative comments about Pynchon, i.e. that his books are style over substance, the characters are wooden, he’s a one-trick pony etc.

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  7. This is such an interesting post.

    There was a time that I abandoned books all the time. These days, when I I find reading time so precious, I am very careful about what I read and almost never abandon anything.

    I also find that as I get older I am more patient with books and I also can find value in certain books that I would not find when younger.

    When I was younger I read a lot of military histories. Now I also have little interest in them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      Thanks Brian. I think I should be a bit more careful about what I do read. After all, I have loads of books that I really want to read but other, less worthy, books keep leapfrogging over them.

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  8. It might be an age thing. (?) I never used to abandon books and I’d plug away faithfully to the painful end. Now I give up–sometimes I’ll return if I think the book just isn’t the right one for the moment, but sometimes I just toss them.
    On the age thing: you start to realize that the number of books you can read in your lifetime is limited so why waste it. With the kindle plus my book room, I have thousands of books waiting to be read so again why should I waste my precious time on something that I dislike or something that is boring me to tears.
    I gave up on Martin John recently. I want to read a BOOK not some outline of a book. Rendezvous in Venice was too soppy for me–perhaps other people liked it.. Muse & West of Sunset–all abandoned this year…
    And of course I have to mention Inherent Vice which I read most of but then abandoned it when I couldn’t take any more. I knew better as it is Pynchon but the film clips looked funny. Abandoned the film too.
    Some of the book abandonment occurs, I think, because we take chances on books or perhaps our reading tastes shift and we haven’t yet caught up to the new reality.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I suppose the good thing about abandoning books is that it does show that we’re taking a chance with different types of books and not just reading those books that we ‘know’ we like.

      I think you’re right that as we age we’re less likely to persevere with a book we aren’t enjoying. I do still trudge through a book that I don’t like to the bitter end but I usually ask myself ‘why?’. The only relatively recent book that I did this and was actually pleased that I did it was Ulysses as I thought it improved (or I just got used to it) and I could at least see some point to it. With M&D I just lost the will to live.

      There are some instances when I think ‘you know what, I’ll just watch the film.’ Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was a recent instance of this.

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      • Another factor: preinternet, I went to bookshops to buy books, but now it’s nearly all internet and so I can’t always read the first few pages to see if I’ll like the book. Amazon’s feature allows that for some books–the ones that paid I expect–but not for others.
        I steer away from historical novels (anything set before 20th C) but I will watch the film. Your example is a good one: I wouldn’t dream of reading the book, but I’d watch the film.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jonathan

        I went for an old-style ‘bookshop crawl’ recently. I went round all the second-hand bookshops and ended up in a Waterstone’s. I find that what I buy is different when I’m holding the physical copy compared to what I buy on the internet. For example, all those nice Pushkin Press books look slightly odd in a bookshop, though they’re nice as individual objects.

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      • I hardly ever find anything I want in bookshops anymore.

        Liked by 1 person

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