Difficult Books

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.


38 thoughts on “Difficult Books

  1. It must be in the stars. I’m going through an infuriating phase at the moment of starting books, several of them recommended to me by other people, and giving up after several pages, chapters – or – in the case of one tome – after reading 9 million pages, which was only 1/4 of the way through. I can identify with what you’re saying – whenever I give up on a book, I don’t say to myself: “Pants!” as I throw it in the library return chute. I say: “I’ll borrow this again some day and finish it.” To this day, I never have.

    It just goes to show, however, that one man’s meat is another man’s poison – and why we should never take one person’s opinion on our writing as the gospel truth – I absolutely loved The Sound and The Fury and The Cloud Atlas!

    That White Teeth by Zadie Smith defeated me.

  2. Hi Helen,

    i think there might be a difference between books that defeat us because of something we have not yet learned to do in our reading (and may never) and books that we can’t finish because they’re just not that good. I don’t know, though. Having typed that sentence, I realize that sounds far more certain than I really am that there are some books that simply are “great” and the reader’s failure to get them is something that can be cured with time, the acquisition of skill, etc. whereas a badly written book is just a badly written book.

  3. I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve returned to shelves partially read, each time thinking that there was something wrong with my understanding. I like the viewpoint that perhaps I will grow into Proust, Joyce and Hemingway, one day. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, however, is the book that I most clearly remember thinking “What am I missing here that everyone else ‘got’?”

    I had been wondering how you were faring with HHGTTG — I first read this when I was eighteen or nineteen and have been considering a reread. I picked it up recently, read the first few pages and put it down almost immediately. It just didn’t feel right for me at that time.

    And as for badly written books — they should come with a warning sticker. Who, though, would be brave enough to affix the label?

  4. Usually I am so cheap about my time and money that I manage to avoid obtaining books I’ll end up not reading. I do have Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther sitting on my shelf for years that I’ve never been able to get a good start on…

    Mostly though I fall victim to non-fiction books, especially ones that I think I need to read to stay current or that would be good for me in general. I’ve got Alvin Toffler’s Power Shift collecting dust, never made it past the first chapter, and The Outlaws of Medieval Legend, by Maurice Keen which I thought would be a good reference book for writing, but which I’ve never been focussed enough to progress with.

    I would be remiss not to mention Bubba Free John’s Conscious Exercise and the Transcendental Sun. Kind of a yoga book, but I couldn’t wade too much through all the technology of love talk. Anybody remember Bubba Free John? One of a kind.

  5. Kerryn — I’m with you on the God of Small Things. Not a bad book, but not a book that makes you forget to exhale.

    (No warning labels here — I like finding out what I can’t read and don’t really want to be warned away.)

    Fencer, The Sorrows of Young Werther! Isn’t that the book that intense young men read and then outgrow? I’m with you on nonfiction. Guns, Germs Steel, for example. One chapter was enough. As for Bubba Free John — my good heavens. How could I have spent a liftime ignorant of the technology of love?! Wait a minute… you didn’t finish it, right?

  6. Since I don’t read novels the way the rest of you and most of my friends do, I can’t comment on this problem of not liking some books that you feel you should. It does make me ask, What are you looking for when you read?. The pleasure and entertainment is obvious, but what else?

    Here is a statement I like from J.B.S. Haldane, a British geneticist and evolutionary biologist (1892-1964).

    “The world shall not perish from lack of wonders, but from lack of wonder.” (This is amazingly like someting St. Augustine said 1500 or so years earlier.)

    “Perish” may be melodramatic and the way a scientist might arrogantly feel about those who don’t follow his or her path, but it is hard to knock the benefits and satisfaction of a passionate curiosity about what we are and how we got this way.

    Bad writing I understand, but do some of James, Adams, and Faulkner not give you some of that insight into what and how, or is it a lack of some other wisdom from those writers that makes you throw the book back after two or ten pages? I guess it’s a survey type of question. What are you looking for when you read? Is it time for multiple choice yet?

  7. Hi bloglily,

    You’re right about the Sorrows of Young Werther… I believe I got that when I felt I wasn’t being nearly intense enough. And no, sadly, I never became a certified technologist of love. (You’ve got to say that like: luhhve, with a Barry White thing going on there.)

    That book Guns, Germs and Steel has always attracted me on the bookstand, and it’s the kind of thing I might go for, but perhaps not now.

    That’s an interesting question of smokey’s, what do we read for? I want to come upon a new thought, a new insight into the nature of things, whether it’s through a character in a fictional world or an idea striking sparks in a non-fiction book. But sometimes one has to be patient with any particular work.

  8. BL: Just wanted to pop back in and say — I wish I could come up with an emoticon for tongue-stuck-firmly-in-cheek. I don’t want people warning me against books either.

    And then I found smokey’s question. What do I look for when I read? Reading is, for me, a pleasurable activity but I don’t always expect to find pleasure, or entertainment, in the pages. I guess I look for the challenge of new ideas or different perspectives on the world; something that will make me stop, and think “Well, what about that, then?” In putting down a book at two, ten or fifty pages I realise I might sometimes miss these ideas but maybe they’re the ideas I’m not yet ready for.

  9. I really enjoyed reading your post and all the wonderfully thought-provoking comments of your readers. I too have several “should read” books waiting and waiting for me. But with late middle-age has come the wisdom that time is short and there’s no point wasting it on things I don’t enjoy and don’t have to do.

  10. Mr. S, A great question, and one I’m going to have to think over. (It’s midnight here, and I’m officially going to bed. As should you, Jana!) Hey Kerryn — I love the way your mind works! You need no emoticons, either. After about 11 at night, I become humorless.  It’s sad.  But if someone did do the “warning: bad book ahead” it would certainly save us all some money and wasted time… I’m with you on the ideas we’re just not yet ready for — or the expression of those ideas.
    Hello Jana, I didn’t mean to sound like your mom in that exhortation to get to bed, especially since it means you have a second to come by and chat! Time is indeed short, which is why I don’t make myself push beyond the first ten pages or so. But I like the idea of trying again!

    Hi Fencer — Thank you for the Barry White imitation.  It’s a first here at BlogLily, and I hope not the last.

  11. Ha I loved this! The Sea, The Sea is one of the very few books I’ve put down in bewilderment and boredom. What was that supposed to be about? I’ve also abandoned William Golding’s Rites of Passage and just recently I could not get into Christobel Kent’s The Summer House, although heaven knows why. I don’t think it’s an insult to books not to like them – all of the people can’t be pleased all of the time even in a library. It’s just a question of individual taste. And after all to like everyhing without discrimination would be to do an injustice to the books that really grip you by the throat and move you to another dimension. Oh and I don’t think you need fear for your sense of humour, dear Bloglily – it’s working beautifully in my opinion!

  12. Don’t worry BL I am not offended 🙂 I know the feeling of reading a book and not being able to get through it. Hitchhikers Guide is a weird geeky book with a very peculiar type of humour in it and I am very aware that it is not everybody’s cup of, uhm, tea. I love it, which is why I recommend it to everyone. But I am sorry you wasted $3.75 on it, think about all the icecream you could have bought for that!

  13. Hoo hoo, I wish The God of Small Things had come with a warning sticker! I got to the end of it but it was not to my taste at all. I found it revolting and couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.

    I was, however, disappointed in myself for not being able to get into White Teeth. In that case I definitely wondered: “What am I missing? What don’t I get?” I really did want to be able to understand that book. I read to step into another world, but maybe that world was to me unconvincing… or not what I expected…

    Oh yum. My husband has just come in with green tea ice cream, are you all jealous?!?!

  14. i hated hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy and like helen and kerryn, the god of small things. i forced myself to read both till the end, hoping some revelation will come at some point but after the last page, i don’t even know what’s the whole point of these two books.

    i’m very much a lightweight reader so i often find books with labels such as book oprah’s club or finalist of so-and-so book prize a warning sign for me. but i never learn my lesson – always get so impressed by these labels and hope that would widen reading repertoire to a more sophisticated side.

  15. Helen,

    Nice entry, you are well read! lol. I must admit , I need to read more. I think the last book I read that was epic in nature, was the “Grapes of Wrath”. Also, just want to say thx for visiting my site. I’ll be adding you to my frequent reads.

  16. Hello litlove, I’m glad to know you had that experience with The Sea. It makes me feel better. And you’re right, sometimes a book doesn’t get finished because it’s just not to one’s taste. I wonder how that evolves — and why some things that seemed ten years ago to be not to my taste become, a decade later, just what I want.

    Ingrid, I’m glad you also count wasted money in terms of lost ice cream opportunity cost. And I will be trying again with Hitchiker’s Guide! Helen — Lucky you. My husband brings me tea, but I have to fetch my own ice cream.

    Welcome Sulz, It takes a lot of poking around to figure out what book will satisfy your reading needs! How we figure that out is a bit of a mystery to me. Sometimes Oprah works, sometimes you just look up on the train and see a cover in a stranger’s hands and you just know that’s going to lead to something fabulous. Lightweight or not, reading offers so many pleasures. And that’s a good argument for not worrying too much about the “difficult” books and just heading for the ones that work for you.

    Hello Al — I’m glad you came by. I liked your stories about your father! Best, BL

  17. A perfect solution: let the book rest and return later! I discovered this “trick” several years after the end of high school when I spotted a copy of Great Expectations in a book store. I kept wondering why I was even bothering to pick the novel up, seeing as I’d HATED Dickens in high school; but as soon as I began reading, I was sucked into Pip’s world. Amazing what a little time and perspective can do. 🙂

  18. Cat, How smart was that to know that someday Great Expectations would be the thing for you. I re-read it recently with my book group, and discovered how wonderful it is, something I hadn’t seen at all when I read it in college. And welcome! Best, BL

  19. I always pick three or four books at a time at the library — generally at random — knowing I will read at most one. Once home, I skim through the first pages to get a rough feeling on which book I will like best. I try that one. If I can’t get past the first few pages, I jump straight to the middle of the book and give it a second chance. If it’s better, I go back and try to persevere. Otherwise, I put the book down, and pick the next one from the stack.
    The important thing is to remember only the ones I have actually read, so that the unread ones still have a chance in a future random selection, when I am more grown-up / old.
    How’s that for a guilt-free reading process ?

  20. Now I have always loved the HHGTG ever since I first read it in my mid teens. But then I’m a Brit, and I suspect the humour is very British, so that may be why you can’t get into it.

    And why should you? We all have different tastes – I have more than a few books that have sat on my shelves for years, unread because I could never get past the first page, or first chapter or whatever, although they will be different ones from a selection of books you’ve been unable to finish.

  21. Bl,
    What a wonderful post and such great comments.
    I have to say I always resent the book when I cannot continue. The reason being I always buy with such high expectations and I am so rarely dissappointed. But when I am I hate the feeling!

    Take Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell I hated it and tried tried tried to like it! Everyone said it was great but I found it simply awful and finally stopped! My hopes were dashed! The same is true with quality non-fiction where the expectation si raised. One recent challenge has been a Short History of nearly Everything which just fails to hold my atttention!

    As for HitchHikers I love it. Cas says its a Brit thing but I’m Irish and love it! It really is about taste and what is more your mood at the time!

    Oh you do have my brain running away though!

  22. You’re right to talk about trying things again later. CRIME AND PUNISHMENT was a complete disaster for me the first time I tried to read it. Second time around, I decided it was one of the greatest books ever written. But some, you try and try, and they just never work. I’m very ashamed to admit that for me it’s THE HOBBIT, which I want so badly to enjoy the way so many others I know have. And since I could never get past that, I’ve never even tried any of Tolkein’s others (although I was able to enjoy all the Lord of the Rings movies immensely).

  23. I love the idea of growing into books. For me, I grew into the Heart of Darkness – took me three attempts to realize how utterly amazing it is. Now I’m scared to go back and reread Grapes of Wrath – I’ve only read it once but, like you, the first time was a transporting experience.

    I really have trouble enjoying Hemingway’s writing, and wonder if I ever will.

    And this post isn’t anything like a comdemnation – the difficulty of texts is, oddly, a joyful thing to discuss amongst friends.

  24. I’m with you on the Henry James; I love Henry James, but I was beaten by The Ambassadors. I just couldn’t figure out what was happening! And A Sentimental Education by Flaubert beat me too — I just couldn’t care much about the characters.

  25. Mandarine, I like it that you give room for future random selections. It’s really most generous! And grown up and guilt free.
    Hello Cas, I think you & litlove would agree that some of this not being able to get past the first ten pages is simply a matter of taste, and to be expected. Makes sense to me.
    Welcome Dr. Mike — It sounds like the summer after high school was not the time for thick books about other worlds. And that now is the time! (Or at least a few years back.)
    Eoin, Maybe Hitchhiker’s Guide is a european taste: but then, I like my cheese unpasteurized and my chocolate to taste like real chocolate, and I like european stationery supplies, and Jane Austen…

    Hi Emily — Your post makes me want to read Crime & Punishment. Except I cannot right now, because I have The Three Musketeers open on my nightstand. One thick book at a time.

    Courtney, it’s true that we gain solace and fortitude from hearing that others struggle with books sometimes too!

    Hello Dorothy, It’s funny to think of you being beaten by Mr. Strether and the lot. I can’t imagine they’ve ever tried to catch up to you on a bike. (And yes, I had the same experience with Senteimental Education.)

  26. In asking everyone what are you looking for when you read, it occurred to me an hour later as I was hiking around beautiful East Bay landscapes of gentle hills and oak trees with, today, a group of wild turkeys grazing on nothing obvious, I realized that we seek, find and praise something we call beauty from all of our sensory inputs: from auditory we revere music, from visual, painting (and natural landscapes), from touch, taste, and smell– the transporting aspects of those. So with language, which we receive via visual and auditory senses, we also look for the simply beautiful (as well as the insightful and inspiring as several, like Fencer and Kerryn, have noted). It was this beauty that BL shared with us from Joyce’s “The Dead” in her post, “Would YOU pay $192.50 for this essay?” What an eye and ear for beauty.

  27. I forced myself to finish Ulysses by sheer brute will power and, in retrospect it was simply not worth it. I found it utterly repulsive and I’m sure I always shall. I’m with the Judge or whoever it was in the obscenity trial who said [words to the effect that] it was clearly not pornography as pornography is intended to arouse while Ulysses was obviously intended to revolt.

    I thought the God of Small things was overrated. Really just a soap opera that became fashionable.

    I loved Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy but I read it years and years ago. I suspect it may have badly dated since then. It might also be that it is rather English in its humour — here is a tongue in cheek emoticon coming up 😛

  28. I read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy last year and loved it! (But then, I love that style of humor.) I am always picking up books then putting them down. Often, it is more a matter of what works for me at the moment rather than the book itself being bad.

  29. I don’t like unpleasant people in my books either, usually, but I do like The Sea, The Sea, I think because I like Iris Murdoch so much. But it’s not my favorite of hers.

  30. two books immediately come to mind:

    Harry Potter – just no interest on my part. I was expecting The Hobbit.

    Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance _ I tried and got in approx 100 pgs. The relationship the writer had with his son was just too depressing. I wanted to dope-slap the guy and say – hey dude, stop lecturing everyone on philosophy and show some love.

    Does the book brighten? Is there a deepening of their relationship? I should do a search.

    different books for different nooks to paraphrase another old phrase ( ref weirded out )

  31. I was fortunate enough to read The Sea The Sea with one of my online book clubs, because I don’t much like the surface of Iris Murdoch novels: she handles dialogue and character development quite badly, but that has a lot to do with her trying to make philosophical points with her novels, rather than produce a narrative. What I found with The Sea The Sea was that a fairly advanced knowledge of the legend of the Fisher King helped bring it into focus.

  32. Bloglily, Reading this post & the comments was great! Interesting how what one person loves, another can’t endure. I would suggest that your reaction to THHGTTG could be based on age. I loved it when I was 20. I tried to re-read it at 45 because my son was reading it. Not only could I not read it, but I couldn’t imagine that I ever liked it! There is a bit in that book where a method of torture was listening to really, really bad poetry. Well, that’s what reading that book was like — torture to my ears!

    One of the books I couldn’t finish was Brick Lane. I chose it for my reading group. All of the others slogged through it and still — 2 years later — bring up that horrible book and the torture I put them through. I abandoned it after about 50-60 pages and remain grateful that I didn’t waste my time.

  33. Hello Cam, You’re right, some books feel essential to you at certain ages. And then, probably because you’ve so thorougly internalized them (or gotten over them, in the case of someone like Ayn Rand!), you don’t need what they have to offer anymore.

    Barry, That’s such incredibly useful advice! I hadn’t thought much about the narrative problem that occurs when a writer wants to make those philosophical points, nor had it occurred to me to think about the Fisher King, a legend I don’t know and have on my list of things to look up, ASAP!

    Hi Q, How disappointing it must have been to want the Hobbit and to get Hogwarts. The Harry Potter books interest me very much. I think they’re a good example of something children need very much — a story, and plot, and a place — and of something they don’t notice is missing (really fine writing, for example).

    Lucette, I like Iris Murdoch too — but for some reason, not this one. I hope your writing’s going well! I think about you, as I get myself going on finishing up my novel.

    Hello ex libris — yes, it’s very much a matter of what works at the moment! Good books can fail to move good readers.

    Hello Ms. Make Tea –Ulysses was a brute force ordeal for me as well. Not, that’s not right — I read it the way you read something in a language you don’t speak: in a coma, sort of.

    Smokey–I’m like hearing about your explorations into the ways our brains work. All those kinds of beauty! It makes you so grateful to be alive, doesn’t it?

  34. I came here via Charlotte’s Web, and had to comment on this post. I think the medium that suits the Hitchhiker’s Guide is the original one – radio. I’m not sure if I would have liked the book nearly as much if I didn’t have the narrator’s voice in my head already. So I’d recommend it, if you have a long car journey planned (and backup, in case I’m wrong!)

    The book (among many!) I have tried several times and failed with is A Suitable Boy – unlike the Dickens that I eventually did grow into, I just can’t get into this one.

    But a fascinating post and comments! I’ll have to come back to this when my brain is up to doing anything other than re-reading.

  35. Pingback: Book Thoughts at Bloglily « Grammarqueen’s Blog

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