So sometimes, we here at Res Ipsa Etc. have issues doing posts consistently – no shit, say the three blog subscribers – and in an effort to alleviate that, we’ve decided to do regular post prompts to encourage us to get to typing. (Like weekly to biweekly, say.) For this first outing, we’re all big readers, devotees of GoodReads and whatnot, and one day, the question of books we never finished came up on gchat. How? We have no idea, and no one feels much like checking. Regardless, there’s somehow something strangely telling, or at least interesting, about the books an avid reader just hasn’t managed to complete, for whatever reason. With that in mind, then, your authors present selected works we never finished . . .
. . . except for Rikka (pre-update), who either shames all of us with her devotion to the text or has somehow wasted more hours of her life on things she not only disliked, but quite arguably hated, than anyone else on this blog. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is, naturally, in the eye of the reader. Oh, and it should be noted that, in the true spirit of Team ODB Being on Teams, we don’t all agree on which books are shite and/or not worth the time and which ones aren’t, so now as in the future, each author’s post should be understood to be the opinion of that author alone, unless otherwise indicated.
What’s that you say? “Shit is LONG, yo?” It’s a blog with nine (9) loquacious-ass voracious readers, what did you expect? Ok, fine – want a quick version? (An asterisk indicates that the blogger did finish the book, but they had something to say about that.)
Rikka: The Dark Tower, by Stephen King*, Darkfever by Karen Marie Moning; Rooks: The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand, Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, Intercourse, by Andrea Dworkin*, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl, and more; Katie: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers, The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper, by Diablo Cody; Jenny: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers*, The entire genre of “Fond Memories of Vagina” books; Docta K: Middlemarch, by George Eliot; Vanessa: Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace, Strong Motion, by Jonathan Franzen, The Man Who Ate Everything, by Jeffrey Steingarten; Bez: many Major Works in the Western Literary Canon, the Harry Potter series, by JK Rowling, Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut*, 1984, by George Orwell; Magnolia: Remembrance of Things Past, by Marcel Proust, Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace; Dave: Tess of the d’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy.
Rikka: Wow, I actually have finished every book I’ve ever started. Not because I want to, really, or because I’ve never met a book I didn’t like, but out of some sort of weird compulsion to finish what I start. I feel that I should state here that I read 3-4 novels a week, depending on what else I have going on. I’ve always immensely enjoyed reading, even when it isn’t the most captivating of narratives. Hmmm, let me tell you about the book that I hated the most, and really had to force myself through. Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. Stephen King took a best-selling series and, in one fell swoop, annihilated it. Reading that book was like adorning the inside of one’s eyelids with tiny shards of glass. I would say that I don’t want to spoil it for you, but the author has already done that. By eliminating every character you read the series for and replacing them with random nobodies, King severs the reader’s tie to the story, and then just keeps pushing forward for another 400 pages or so. Then, the epic shoot out you’ve been expecting all these years (I read the first novel in this 7 novel series in 1996, but it was published in 1982, before I was even born) is replaced by a freaking doodle fest with a character who was just introduced. If you’re just picking up the series, stop at Wizard and Glass. Trust me, you’ll be happier that way.
Update: I could probably sit here and rip on dozens of books that I hated and read anyway, but I won’t. As Rooks has pointed out, I’ve probably wasted hours and hours of my life finishing absolute rubbish novels. So, always committed to change for the better, I have decided instead to pick up a novel for my kindle and not finish it. That novel is Darkfever by Karen Marie Moning. From what I can tell, it’s about faeries that have the power to rape women and make them like it. Drivel of the worst order, really. The kindle edition was free, and I have successfully read about 30 pages and stopped. Until I understood the raping people part. Hopefully this will mark the end of what has been a potentially life-wasting habit.
Rooks: Oh man, I used to be like Rikka, seriously. I’d read every damn thing, whether I liked it or not. Then I ran into Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Now, before someone jumps down my throat on this, to my mind, inexplicable classic, I did finish it. Barely. It was the best of nap-inducers, it was the worst of reading assignments . . . Anyway, as a result of that text (coupled with Hard Times), I created what I call my “two book rule” – if I don’t like two books by an author, no matter who that author is, I’m no longer required to give that author a shot. I don’t have to care, for instance, about how much you love Cormac McCarthy – I’ve read All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, and I. Just. Don’t. And you know what? You can’t make me. Use fucking punctuation, Cormac, and try not to shit all over my gender via near complete invisibilization, and maybe we can talk. Except for how we can’t, because I’ll likely still find you strangely and utterly boring and lacking in suspense and tension development, and continued to be baffled by your popularity. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m a philistine.
Anyway, the two book rule got its first real challenge in the form of everyone’s favorite objectivist darling, Ayn Rand. I’d read Anthem, which was fine, or whatever, but nothing to get terribly enthused about, and had The Fountainhead on a suggested reading list for a class. I started. And I swear on all that is holy, I did try, but fuck me if that rape scene and subsequent treatment of same (Dominique: “He raped me! And it was gross, maybe, but I felt so delightfully defiled, and I’m somehow sure I kinda had it coming! Golly! I don’t know what to think!”) just . . . made me . . . you know, I’m quite possibly still pissed about that scene over a decade later, my reaction was that visceral. It was the first time I threw a book across a room in sheer frustration, and it was the first time I simply couldn’t finish. I just wasn’t ready to spend the next couple of weeks pissed off and I knew I would be – in order to justify my moods, I’d have to show people on the novel where the bad author touched me; I couldn’t face it. I was simply unprepared to spend any more time, waste any more of my brief seventeen years, on this . . . this . . . execrable piece of pseudo-political, unwontedly pretentious, anti-woman bullshit.
Now, I did, however, satisfy the two book rule for Ayn Rand by managing to complete, and even occasionally enjoy, Atlas Shrugged. At that point, however, the proverbial seal had been broken – I’d never feel quite as obligated to finish a book as I did before The Fountainhead. Now I have yet to finish Lolita, Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse (this is technical, I actually have finished it . . . drunk, so I have no idea what that last chapter said, and keep meaning to re-read it just to more honestly say I did, but still), Special Topics in Calamity Physics, several romance novels too shitty to be believed (I’m looking at YOU, Susan Elizabeth Phillips), and any number of other books (less than ten, I imagine, but likely more than three) that I can’t recall at the moment. I actually do plan to complete some of those someday (namely Lolita), perhaps as a holdover from the days when I cared about such things, but I have no idea if I’ll actually follow-through. The Fountainhead though? NEVER. GONNA. HAPPEN.
Katie: I read most books more than once, either because I love it or because I’ve forgotten what it was about (I’ve probably read Little Women 20 times). But there are three books I have started and not finished, for wildly different reasons.
1. Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: I picked this one up at 30th St. Station in Philadelphia and tried to read it on the train going…somewhere. New York, maybe? Even Eggers skeptics recommended it to me. I couldn’t get past the first 50 or so pages without crying and feeling like I was going to faint (which was fun on the train). There’s a lot of cancer in my family. People have died (both very suddenly and after long struggles); people (including both of my parents) have had multiple surgeries/excisions/procedures, and it’s likely that those same people will have more surgeries/excisions/procedures in the future. I just can’t do stories that involve someone dying from cancer — it’s one of my biggest fears (for both people I love and myself). And since one of my book rules is that I don’t skip parts, I don’t think I’ll ever finish this one.
2. Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago: For some reason this was in my room when I was a teenager. I don’t even know why we had it. But I was in my constant reading phase, and I didn’t have anything else, so I started reading it. Um. It’s three volumes. I hit a section full of numbers and got bored. The aforementioned “don’t skip” rule kicked in, and I didn’t pick it up again. I think my bookmark is still in the volume I was reading when I stopped.
3. Diablo Cody’s Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper: I started this one because my parents were taking me to the airport and I didn’t have anything to read on the plane. My mom handed it to me (someone else had recommended it to her; she didn’t particularly enjoy it, but thought I might like it) and I stuck it in my bag without looking at it. I didn’t buy anything else to read, so I read a few pages on the plane. The first chapter was among the most condescending, exploitative drivel I’ve read. I think I may have actually thrown this one away.
Jenny: It’s kind of hard to remember books you don’t finish. Mostly because, I mean, they were forgettable in the first place. I have always been voracious when it comes to books. I was 22 and in an MFA program before I knew it was even an option to just. . . stop. . . reading. At that point, I was surrounded by so many books that if I didn’t like one there was another one close by. I learned that if I was bored, I could just hop onto the next oncoming literary train. It was a transformative experience. I’ve been casting off half-assed pieces of literary junk with regularity since then. And not always because I hate the book. I think it takes a really masterful novelist to write an ending that is something other than an overly neat summation, a cliff-hanger, or a sudden drop off the aforementioned cliff. So sometimes, if I really really love a book and it starts to take a bad turn near the end, I’ll just put it to bed early. Night, lil’ dude. I’ve saved a lot of relationships with books that way.
I will say that I almost didn’t get through A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. And I don’t have any really big “fear of losing a parent” neurosis to blame. I just thought it was staggeringly bloated and overly sentimental. But I am a hard worker. I plowed through. What I have never been able to make it through is a whole genre of books that Garland Gray calls Fond Memories of Vagina. I’ll let him explain it:
The plot is always the same: “I am a writer in the twilight of my years, bored with life and my sexual powers. Oh, wait: pussy. I shall attain some. I am reinvigorated! Thanks, pussy!”
For me this has meant trying to start (and failing to finish) Martin Amis’ Night Train, Richard Ford’s Independence Day, various Rushdie books, Mailer, Portnoy’s Complaint, and some Updike. Again, Mr. Gray:
These books always remind me of Christian Bale in “American Psycho,” rutting fiercely and eyehumping himself in the mirror. It makes you want to get involved, to tell Amis, “hey, guy, do you want to get a room to yourself and work all this out? Do I really need to be here for this?” Which is always how I feel when I read these books, because they are all the same book. The exact same.
The other thing I find in the Fond Memories of Vagina genre is that there is always a precocious and threatening fully-grown daughter character. She is always super sexualized and demonized. It’s like they all read an intro to Freud book the day before they sat down to start their novel. We will explore the relationship that baby boomer dude writers have to their gen x daughters and why they are all so Woody fucking Allen about it some other day.
Docta K: I have sloppily read many, many books, but if I can sense at a certain point that it’s going to be a loser, I’ll skim through the middle and read the end. Just for a sense of closure. I’m kind of a narrative junkie – I want to know what happened in the story, even if I hate everyone in it and the author and the cover art. (Alternatively: I have to be able to pull questions from the end of the book to call out students who bail halfway through.) I can only think of one book I have actually not bothered with even faux-finishing, and that is George Eliot’s immortal work, Middlemarch.
Here’s the thing: it was SUPER boring. Now, I know from boring, but there is something about George Eliot’s particular brand of boring that sucked all the caring right out of me. And not in a sexy vampire way. In a sad, dull, pastoral way. I couldn’t finish Middlemarch because of its strict conformity to Docta K’s First Law of Englishness.
What? You want to know what the First Law says? Look at you. Well, since you asked so nicely…
THE FIRST OF LAW OF ENGLISHNESS holds that all English people require a certain baseline level of misery to function properly.
Now, usually the English have plenty of misery. Sometimes they are extremely fortunate, and they have a surfeit of misery. And it is in these times – e.g. the Blitz – that they attain their most essential Englishness and feel best about themselves. Keep calm! Carry on! Stiff upper lip! However, sometimes circumstances conspire to not have the Nazis bombing London. It is during these times that the English are compelled to create their own misery in order to continue being English. (See also: colonialism, the weather, the Royal Navy, Marmite, heavy steel industry, Milton Keynes, the motherfucking weather, the Church of England, banking).
To wit: George Eliot’s Middlemarch both contains within itself and creates for the reader sufficient misery to satisfy the conditions of the First Law. And so I didn’t finish it, because I was already living in England at the time and thus top-full (in a manner not dissimilar to a chunky soup) of misery.
Vanessa: Infinite Jest. Infinite Jest. Infinite Jest. Can we go home now?
Okay, in fairness I may actually try to re-read that one one day, because I do have love for David Foster Wallace and he maybe deserves for me to give him another chance. The man had tough times, and I have an intellectual crush on him (I mean, who doesn’t?). His non-fiction is Awesome City, in my book, and his suicide makes me extraordinarily sad. He seems like he was an amazing dude (even if maybe a little too tortured about his own colossal intellect to write fiction that wasn’t unreadable, and should maybe have stuck to non-fiction about county fairs and dictionaries whenever possible). But I could go on about my imaginary friendship with DFW all the day long. Moving on.
So, jeez, I picked the wrong time to try to tussle with this book. I started it at the beginning of the process of studying for the bar, when my brain was already turning into pathetic tapioca, and valiantly plugged through about 100 pages before I realized that I. Just. Could. Not. Handle. It. Like, the process of reading it felt like trying to jog through jello. I strongly believe that there must be something amazing in there that makes so many of my smart friends rave about this book, and there were flashes of moments that made me want to trudge through it to see where he was going with all this, but then, really, not so much. At all. So, maybe some day we will meet again, Infinite Jest, but not anytime soon.
I too am one who came late to the not-finishing-books game (side note: I am also late to the reading-more-than-one-book at once game. I used to be really stoic about having one and sticking to it until it was done, damnit. Glad I got over that). So there are a few more.
Strong Motion, an early Jonathan Franzen book, was one. I have no idea how that can have been written by the same guy who wrote The Corrections and Freedom. I think someone must have dropped something heavy on his head in the intervening time. In a good way. I just petered out and decided that I was never going back, and I wasn’t going to feel bad about that. It wasn’t even bad in an interesting way. Just . . . not worth the trouble. Another recent one was The Man Who Ate Everything, because I basically decided that the author was a huge prick, and I would be damned if I would give him the satisfaction of finishing. I’m sure he’s still seething out there, somewhere.
But yeah. Infinite Jest. Mostly that one.
Bezuidenthustra: Behold, for I am the Anti-Rikka. I am literary abandonment itself. I am the essence of wordquit.
I am notorious for not finishing what I’ve started. In fact, I have a rule that pertains to just this situation: if I’ve read 70 pages and picking up your paperback still renders me listless, I’m re-gifting you or (more likely) leaving you on some arbitrary bus stop bench as I go on my merry way. (Yes, I really do that.)
There are few exceptions to this rule. Almost all exceptions involve some combination of the author’s fresh/promising prose (i.e. “craft”), previous enjoyable efforts by the same author (i.e. “history”), academic demands (i.e. “grades”), and/or continued insistence from friends whose taste in literature I trust and respect (i.e. “nagging”). And even if all those factors are present to a significant degree, there’s still a good chance I’m leaving the novel for dead. I have a lot of interests — I can’t be bothered with things that don’t make me want to bother with them. If any Victorian novelists had the sense to pick a fight with me on page 30, I wouldn’t have had to depend on movies to fill me in on the details of all these stories for the past 28 years (oh, and also, Star Trek: The Next Generation).
The list of novels I’ve abandoned mid-stride reads like a veritable what’s what of the Western literary canon. In this hallowed litany you’ll find everything from Moby Dick to The Grapes of Wrath to a thicken of Dickens, plus or minus several Brontes and a couple Garcia Marquez…eseses, and every vampire story ever.
Abandoning a book is nothing to me. It’s like, whatever, man. Do that shit all the time, son. But that all said, there are a few that stand out for me.
1. Harry Potter and… whatever
Okay, I was skeptical when the first novel in this series blew up like a frog exploding in the microwave. I’m not a big fan of hype. But my curiosity soon overcame my skepticism. There had to be something impressive about a story that drew both elementary school children and erudite academics in cape-clod flocks, right? (Oh, young Bezuidenthustra, if only you could’ve learned the truth without such heartache and pain… If only I could go back to enlighten you now…)
I can’t remember what the first one was called. My youngest brother had it in his collection. I stole into his room one afternoon and nabbed the book. Since I wasn’t going to be doing any homework (I’m not sure that I ever did any during high school), I figured I’d give this J.K. Rowling a try.
With great anticipation I set upon the story. Imagine a camera shooting up at my face from between the pages of the book. At first, I’m glowing, expectant grin curling at the edges of my cheeks. Flip 30 pages or so. Now I’m disaffected, a hint of disappointment creasing between my eyes. Flip 40 pages or so. A full-blown frown clouds a bemused sneer.
The problem with describing my irritation with this book is that I can’t pick a favorite thing to bitch about — there are just so many! Tawdry imagery? Weak metaphors? Lame premise (school setting + education in magic + good versus evil = hundreds of other lame British books that never got this popular for some reason)? I could certainly bore you to death rambling on about any one of those things. But I think the most disappointing thing about that novel was just how poor the prose was. I felt like I was marking a draft for a friend in high school. I think it’s only a matter of time before a Rowling engine pops up online allowing one to create a Harry Potter story with just a couple clicks of the mouse, although I suspect something like that’s been around for quite some time if Dan Brown’s novels are anything to go by.
I ditched that book. I had a similar rendezvous with the second tale in the series, after which I rejected the concept completely. I even refuse to see the damn movies. If you enjoy it, good for you. I don’t. I hear Rowling’s writing’s gotten much better. Good for her. Whatever. If I want to read crap, I’ll go back to the fun stuff — I haven’t checked out a Robin Cook novel in a long time.
2. Slaughterhouse Five (Vonnegut)
Let’s be clear about something: I love Kurt Vonnegut. There are a number of writers whose simple complexity I’d love to emulate, and he’s one of them.
There’s nothing wrong with this novel. In fact, I may have finished it. I just can’t be sure about that. I started reading the novel while on the shitter one winter’s eve — just flipped open to a page and took off. Since then, I’ve had the urge to continue reading in this arbitrary fashion. I’ve let myself jump through the narrative much the same way that Billy Pilgrim jumps through time. It isn’t cyclical, it isn’t linear, and it isn’t even completely random — it’s just good toilet literature.
I’m pretty sure I’ve read all the pages. Hell, Kilgore Trout feels like an old friend by now. But I just can’t be sure, you see. And so on.
3. 1984 (Orwell)
Here’s a novel that I actually want to finish. I’m kind of ashamed that I haven’t read the whole thing. I blame all the times I’ve moved.
I first attempted it when I was 15. We were living in Kuwait. I made it to about 100 pages or so before we moved away. Wading so slowly through a book wasn’t — and isn’t — all that strange for me, since I’m usually reading 4-5 books at any one time and juggling that with other pursuits like sports, writing, music, crap television, and masturbation. However, had I known the damn thing would still be incomplete today at the time, I would’ve made myself rush through it.
I didn’t know, though. We moved back to South Africa and I lost the book. But I was in luck! My dad had a copy in our study in South Africa — I found it a few months after we’d settled in. So I continued reading… until my parents sold all our books for the move to Canada. I’d put the damn thing away for a few weeks while I mastered Earthworm Jim, and there it went. I was still only about 120-130 pages in.
I actually forgot about it for a long time. There are so many great novels around that I didn’t have a shortage of fiction to satisfy my appetite. Then, a few years ago, I remembered that I was yet to complete Orwell’s magnum opus. Whoops. I went out and bought it. Opened it. Started reading. Put it down for final exams. Got lost in the law-school-application shuffle. Moved to a new apartment. Lost the book. (Actually, I think it was stolen, but whatever.) Forgot about it again.
For the past year or so, I keep thinking I should buy another copy. And I probably should. But it almost feels right this way. Maybe this is my Moby Dick.
Wait… what happens in Moby Dick again?
Magnolia: There are two unfinished books on my “to be read” stack (it’s located next to my bathtub, since that seems to be where I do almost all of my reading, but out of splash range) that haunt me: Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Though there may be other books that I have left unread, these two are my constant, nagging companions.
You see I’m currently engaged to a man I met in graduate school in a class on Beckett and Joyce. That’s right, only Beckett and Joyce. He teaches English, primarily poetry and novel studies, at that same university. To say that our library is extensive is an understatement.
Proust was the first of these tomes to come into my life. On the anniversary of an important day in our relationship, said fiancé gifted me with a beautiful hard-backed, ivory linen and sky blue leather covered two-book set of Remembrance of Things Past. Mr. Magnolia loves Proust and loves this story.
I have gotten through half of the first book – three times. It’s not that I don’t want to read it, or that I haven’t enjoyed what I’ve read so far. In this case it’s that the books themselves seem to insist on being uninterrupted and are almost pieces of art. One shouldn’t read a piece of art in a bathtub (especially if one, like me, is prone to the occasional splash or – horror of horrors – the drop into the tub). The other place I often read for long stretches of uninterrupted time is on the beach, which poses problems such as salt water and sand (we all know it gets in everything).
Infinite Jest, on the other hand, is just a bitch. The writing is wonderful, somewhat challenging and paints vivid images. But this book utilizes footnotes…lots of them. So here are my issues: 1) keeping up with two bookmarks simultaneously, 2) doing so while reading in a bathtub, one-handed, 3) I get bored. There (whew!) that’s a load off my chest – this book bores me! There is a footnote that goes on for over 10 pages (in footnote font) that I loved. I love the passages about the movie. But I’m not very into tennis (Mr. Magnolia is), and reading over 200 pages on the techniques of tennis players is tedious for me. No matter how many times I pick it up, I just can’t seem to get past that section.
I am certain that, given time, I will finish both of these stories…just not in the foreseeable future.
Dave: We know Dave hasn’t finished Tess of the d’Urbervilles because he told us so, and we’re pretty sure he plans to fill this space with his commentary on that in the near future, he’s just a busy guy. And though we understand . . . See this Dave? This is the face of peer pressure. It’s a bitch and a half.