Monday, September 13, 2010

Unhappy reading experiences

I love to read. But that doesn't mean every book I pick up is a pleasure. It doesn't even mean that every book I finish is a pleasure.

Henriette Lazaridis Power wrote a guest post on Eric's Pimp My Novel blog last month, on the topic of great first sentences in fiction. She got me thinking about unhappy reading experiences when she cited "a book I never finished and didn’t particularly like. But I’ve never forgotten the start of Gravity’s Rainbow: 'A screaming comes across the sky.'"

I read Thomas Pynchon's WWII epic just out of college, after being introduced to him in a seminar (we read The Crying of Lot 49, a much shorter work). I found it sheer torture. It took me most of that spring to slog through it, and I'm not sure I was better off for the experience. Celine's Journey to the End of the Night was another tough read for me; a friend responded to last month's post, Characters you're not supposed to like, with a reminder about that unhappy tale.

For months now I've had Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives sitting half-read on my bedside bookshelf. When I pick it up I do find the short, obsessive and ironically narcissistic chapters amusing ... but I can't stay hooked for long. Maybe I'd stop short of calling my time with Bolano's characters "unhappy," but I'm finding the novel tedious.

I'm not a person who gives up easily on books I start. Only very rarely do I bail out of a book I've begun. I'm guessing that I'll finish The Savage Detectives one of these months. I got through Pynchon that long-ago spring, but only dared one more of his since (Vineland, which I liked a bit better, against the grain of most of Pynchon's fans). I force-marched myself through Celine's Journey... but have resolutely avoided him since. Years ago I stalled halfway through Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War, but I have in mind coming back around to it. I know readers who will start a book and set it aside without a second thought if it doesn't grab them, but with the exception of browsing in bookstores I find it pretty hard to hit the eject button. I suppose that would make me a terrible agent. Or perhaps becoming an agent or an editor would harden me?

How about you? What books have given you grief? Did you finish them anyway?


  1. My tale is a bit tangential but falls into the realm of difficult reads. Upon finally completing Djuna Barne's Nightwood, I had deja vu of having deja vu of having read it before. I realized that I was actually remembering finishing it the two times before. Somehow this experience at least helped me remember that I had read it. I actually liked her short story volume a lot. And I can't say I disliked Nightwood, but obviously I had a very difficult time connecting with it.

  2. That's a great tangent, Keiko ... I've done the same thing before, I'm sure of it ... only ... I can't remember which book it was!