I’m pretty sure everyone’s been defeated by a book or two, or more, in their reading lives. Certainly this has happened to me on many occasions when, through no fault of a book, or its author, I’ve discovered I’m missing some skill or piece of equipment — something like a reading compass that would have gotten me going in the right direction with a book, and then seen me through to my destination, the end of the book.
For me, most recently, that book has been (gulp) Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I’m worried about admitting this because people I admire very much like this book. In fact, that’s why I checked it out earlier in the summer. I ended up having to pay a whopping $3.75 library fine because I forgot to renew it as I struggled to get past the first chapter.
As it turns out, I don’t know what to make of books that mingle humans with non-humans, unless the non-humans are in fairy tales, which means they’re basically humans, except disguised as gods or talking cats or Aslan. I kept starting from the beginning of Hitchhiker’s Guide, thinking maybe it would actually be a different book this time. But I never go past page ten. And so …. I gave in, paid my fine, and decided I lacked some essential world view or was seriously deficient in the sense of humor department. The good news is that maybe, when I pick it up again in ten years, I’ll be able to love it. Or, bad news, maybe I’ve missed the moment when it would work.
For no other reason than it makes me feel better to heap on the abuse, or because I’m hoping Ingrid and Edwin will let me change the subject, I’d here like to record other fine books that have done me in as well.
- The Sound and the Fury. I like Faulkner. But I couldn’t get past the opening of this one. It seemed to never start, sort of like James’s The Ambassadors, another book I really wanted to like, but could never get any traction on. I think this means I can’t read books for more than ten pages without having a story of some kind begin.
- Cloud Atlas. People I know loved this. I thought it was odd and frustrating. I abandoned it after two pages simply because it was so long and I couldn’t imagine reading an odd and frustrating book for that many pages. I’m okay with a short story that’s odd and frustrating. But not an epic.
- The Grapes of Wrath. The first time through, I loved it. The second time through, the use of dialect actually made me angry. It seemed so condescending and also, just plain bad writing. Bah.
- Lolita. I love Pale Fire. But I was weirded out by the whole old man little girl thing. This was a long time ago, when I actually, regularly used phrases like “weirded out.” Maybe I wouldn’t be weirded out this time and perhaps I’d actually see that Lolita is beautifully written. It is, after all, written by the guy who wrote the wonderful Pale Fire.
- The Sea, The Sea. This book, which my good friend C. loves, made me sea sick. I don’t like unpleasant people, wall to wall, in my books. I don’t think that’s going to ever change.
When I began this blog, I vowed to praise rather than condemn. The thing is, though, this description of difficult books need not be seen as a condemnation either of myself or the books. It’s more of a yardstick. As I mentioned earlier, I think it’s possible that if I come back to any of these books, I might well be able to find what I missed the first time. And when that happens, I will know that I’ve changed as a reader, and maybe as a person, because they are after all pretty much the same thing.
For example, maybe I won’t be in such a hurry for a story to start now that I’ve parented young children, who are never in a hurry for anything except dessert to start. And maybe one of these days I will suddenly get Douglas Adams, most likely on a day when I wonder why I’m rushing around because, in the end, the earth is such an inconsequential place. As for Lolita, perhaps I’ll be able to see that the subject of a book need not be what the narrator of the book tells you it is. After all, I’ve recently begun to like unreliable narratives, which does not mean that one need grow fond of the unreliable narrator.
I do think that my impatience has been my undoing not only with James and Faulkner, but also Joyce and Proust. I like thinking that, in growing up some, I might be ready for Ulysses and Swann’s Way. Still, I’ll start small. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to take up The Ambassadors again, just to see if I’ve acquired, in the last decade or two, any new virtues. And if I have to shut the book and wait another five years, there are plenty of other things to read until I’m ready for Henry James.