Sunday, November 29, 2009

Books I Can't Seem to Finish

One theme that has played out repeatedly in my life is a tendency to start things but be unable to finish them. No one (myself included) wants to think about the many reasons why this happens to me in general, but I will say that when it comes to books, I've realized that it's not always the book itself that makes me stop. Sometimes, I'm too busy to read, or I find that I'm just not in the mood for a certain kind of book, or it becomes apparent that I just can't concentrate for whatever reason, and so forth.

However, there are occasions when I can't finish a particular book because of the book itself, and one recurring issue I have in this regard is with books that are (IMO! always IMO!) unnecessarily long.

The sordid history
Many eons ago, when I was in grad school, I tried to read Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady (Penguin Group [USA], 1536 pp.; ISBN-13: 9780140432152), which has about 1,500 pages or more, depending on the copy you use. I wanted to finish this book--I even really liked the pages I managed to read--but no matter how I tried, I could not keep going with it. Ultimately, I took the somewhat drastic step of joining an informal reading group devoted entirely to Clarissa--we read nothing else, talked about nothing else--but still, I could not finish it. I just could not.

As a TA, I was very intolerant of the excuse "it was too long," and for the most part, I still am. I have read and loved many eight-hundred-page Victorian novels, for example, and even some eighteenth-century ones, such as Frances Burney's Camilla (Oxford University Press, 992 pp.) and The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties (Oxford University Press, 957 pp.). But Clarissa? No.

Clarissa was different. For a variety of reasons better not gone into, being unable to read Clarissa became a huge failure for me, and I have to admit that I'm still weirdly ashamed of it. Maybe, readers, you will go read the entire novel. Perhaps that might expiate my guilt.

Anyway, as a result of the failure with Clarissa, when it comes to contemporary books, I now have this tendency to say, "If you are not better than Clarissa, I have no right to waste a single moment reading you." In other words, I became unable to devote any time at all to a thousand-pager unless it was as significant to literary history as Clarissa. As a result, I never even tried to read David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (Little, Brown, 1104pp.) or Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (Penguin Group [USA], 768 pp.). Well, okay. There may have been a few other reasons (those are very, very difficult books to read), but let's not go into that. Let's not even talk about the obvious craziness of the Clarissa syndrome. (There's no point.) Let us just know that it is there, always, in the back of my brain.

Lest I seem too too, I will say that I have from time to time actually read and enjoyed other long books. I should also mention that although I also never got through Fielding's The History of Tom Jones (Penguin Group [USA],
1024 pp.], I felt not a single microsecond of guilt; I hated that book so much that I just couldn't feel too bad for dropping it.

The Reviews
Therefore, and completely unsurprisingly, when it comes to popular contemporary fiction, I believe that most if not all baggy novels could and should be streamlined and edited. If I'm to read a thousand pages, I need to believe that all thousand of them had to be there--and in my opinion, the books I'll mention now would should not be as long as they are.

1. Anathem
By Neal Stephenson
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Format: Hardcover, 960pp
ISBN-13: 9780061474095

Why I started
Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and The Diamond Age are two of my favorite science fiction books ever. Ever! I think I want to read those again, but his career has taken a bit of turn and he's been focusing on alternate historical fiction. I tried Cryptonomicon, the first in what he called The Baroque Series, but couldn't get into it; plus, it was about 900 pp. long, and I just did not have the stamina. Then, I saw he was starting a new universe in Anathem, and although it was again 900 plus pages, I thought it seemed very interesting.

Why I stopped
It was interesting to me, very interesting, until the main character leaves the convent/monastery, and then it became more of an adventure story/picaresque thingy, and the quirkiness I knew I would usually enjoy was not enjoyable to me--for no good reason I can come up with. It's probably bec. I just want him to rewrite the novels I mentioned above--over and over again. I can't fault him for not doing that, though!

2. Drood
By Dan Simmons
Publisher: Little, Brown
Format: Hardcover, a billion pp.

Why I started
The novel's narrator is Wilkie Collins, and I enjoy his novels, and I wanted to see what Simmons would make of him. I will confess that I could never finish or even like Hyperion (I think I never got over the cover), so perhaps I did not go into this one with the best faith. However, I did find it interesting a good half to two-thirds of the way through.

Why I stopped
I felt the narrative got a bit out of control; the main character's craziness/opium addiction got less interesting to me, and the tension/fear associated with Drood diffused as (IMO) the character got less horrifying and more silly. Collins is an unreliable narrator in the book, which I usually like, but he does not even know what has happened to himself, much less others, as the book progresses, and I found myself less willing to travel along. Plus, he became so deeply unsympathetic that I did not care.

In closing, N.B.
I must say that many others have read and loved the Simmons and the Stephenson books above; they appear on best seller lists and I think Stephenson's book won the Hugo--and all of my problems may come from the Clarissa Syndrome. But part of me does not believe this.

The first person to comment "tl;dr" on this post (it'd be justified; oh, the humanity!) will receive my own unread copy of Clarissa.


  1. I've thought about--and perhaps even started--posts listing the books I can't seem to finish. Mostly, I think, I'm too ashamed to admit which books those are: none of them deserve it; it's not them, it's me. The Omnivore's Dilemma is one I can think of off the top of my head.

  2. I'm glad you brought this up. I certainly have my fair share of titles I couldn't wade all the way through. And even though I feel like I should know better, I can't escape at least a small amount of guilt for not getting through them. Sure there are the crappy mass markets that weren't worth the time (and of for which I feel nothing), but there are also the Moby Dicks and Satanic Verses of the world that are still a bit of a thorn in the psyche.