Tuesday, August 19, 2014

To toss into the dumpster at first light

In my twenties, I finished every novel I started--even those I was sure I hated by page 50. Partly this was about how much leisure time I had, in those days of fewer obligations (and a job that did not involve hundreds of pages of reading a week). I think, though, it was also about my distrust of myself as a reader: reading was important to the identity I'd constructed, and since most the novels I read were "classics," or influential, or somehow of the moment, I felt I couldn't just say "yuck," and set one aside. There were books I read all the way through only to throw across the room or toss in the trash, but I finished them. I needed to finish them in order to know that I disliked them, and to be able to formulate a reason why.

These days I have no such scruples. I try to make it to page 100 before setting anything aside, but life is too short to read crappy books--even well-reviewed crappy books, even books I've paid good money for, even books I expected to like. With this policy in place, it's rare that I read anything all the way through that elicits a sentiment worse than a "meh." But friends, I have now--for the first time in maybe a decade--finished a book that I want out of my house immediately. It cannot remain on my shelves. I can't bear even the sight of its spine from across the room. That book is Joshua Ferris's To Rise Again at a Decent Hour.

Now, it would be unfair to call this a bad book; it's well-crafted and people I respect liked it a lot. But somewhere between pages 100 and 337 it went from "has its charms, but not really doing it for me" to "OMG THIS IS EVERYTHING I HATE ABOUT EVERYTHING." I could say the problem was that I found nothing emotionally true or interesting about the characters. I could say there wasn't much of a plot. But the thing I really can't forgive this novel is its vague, sentimental treatment of religion (or the spiritual, or the existential, or whatever--they're all kind of mushed together in a lukewarm soup).

You know how some people are all, "I wish I could believe in God! I think religious people are, like, so lucky. I mean, even if they doubt or whatever? They still have this thing to fall back on--a community, a history. Something that gives life meaning. And sometimes, in religious spaces, I feel at home; I really do. I just don't, you know: believe."

This is a book about that guy. And the book has no perspective on belief or unbelief that is any more nuanced or interesting than his.

*

Readers: what was the last book you tossed aside lightly--or threw with great force? And why?

27 comments:

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

A student forced the book "Wicked" onto me to borrow this summer. Despite my very best efforts, I just could not get into it. I think I'm about halfway through, but I finally had to come to grips with the fact that (1) I don't want to finish reading it, (2) I don't care if the student is offended. Now, I just need to give it back. Ugh.

S.J. Pearce said...

The setting-aside that left the biggest impression on me in terms of my conception of myself as a reader was Anna Karenina, set aside shortly after I realized that not only had Tolstoy named the two great loves of Anna's life "Alexey," he saw fit to have her *comment* on the coincidence. More recently, I gave up 75 pages into Everything is Illuminated because the dialect joke had worn thin. The only thing I ever really want to throw out the window these days is theory. Derrida and Barad, most recently.

Concord Fowling Pieces said...

Deborah Harkness. Shadow of Night? Whatever the one after the conspiracy of witches (which was bad enough). I attempted to evict book #2 but was, sadly, thwarted by certain early modernists in the house. What it lacked in character development, it made up for the painful dialogue and puzzling, illogical metaphysics and vampire legalisms.

Historiann said...

I read Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch on vacation in June this year, and thought it was a big, fat nothingburger. It wasn't offensive--it was just mostly a plotless, facile book featuring mostly uninteresting characters. I stayed with it in part because I remember LOVING her first book The Secret History, and I even found a lot to like about her evocation of a 1970s childhood in the South in The Little Friend, her second.

I feared it would be pretentious, but it wasn't even that. That's all to the good, but plots, characters, etc.? Kind of important to me.

Flavia said...

S.J.:

Oooh, yes! The classic that you decide you can live with disliking or not finishing is a huge thing. I remember finally admitting that I just didn't like the Romantic poets, as a group (with some exceptions for individual poems and for Byron, whom I do like)--and how bold and freeing that felt. It wasn't that I'd had a bad teacher, or that I hadn't given them a chance, and it wasn't that they were BAD. They just weren't what I responded to.

undine said...

I would tell you, but then I would have to turn in my contemporary lit union card, because the one I gave up on is sacred writ nowadays. But your post inspired me to write about this over at my place.

Piers said...

Not sure if I can think of one right now, but I have promised to give a paper on Donne this fall that will start with the moment he throws Dante across the room...

Miriam said...

I'm with Historiann on The Goldfinch - expected and hoped to find it transporting, but it was just . . . meh. I gave it about 75 pages, then started feeling resentful.

pat said...

Absolutely do not finish 'Wicked!' Parts of it still horrify me. I can't tell you how often I have wished I had thrown that book out instead of reading it to the bitter end. And I would have thrown it out: I've never disliked anybody enough to give them that book.

The book I most recently regretted reading was one that essentially listed every SF book the author had read as a girl. It wasn't badly written but I am just not inclined to celebrate being a teenage geek, as if it were an unusual achievement. However, it was worth reading if it made me think challenging thoughts about whether there shouldn't be a lot more in one's life than vicarious participation in other people's accomplishments.

nicoleandmaggie said...

There have been a lot of these lately because I've been reading free books on kindle. Most of them aren't keepers.

Of "worthy" literature, the most recent toss was the first Amelia Butterworth book by Anna Katherine Green. Everything was going great and hilariously and detectively when we got to the Chinese laundry... and boy howdy so much racism. AKG's books are great when they only have Christian white people in them (ignoring the lack of diversity, of course), but add in one Jewish person or anybody of a different race and it's an automatic delete. Free Kindle books have also been showing me the dark side of PG Wodehouse. Oh boy, here's a book I never saw at the library... oh, there was a reason for that. So much racism!

And I recently reread Penrod... and I just did not remember so much casual racism. In a way, it's a bit better than AKG or PG Wodehouse because it's showing the casual racism as it actually was during that time period (and Herman is not stupid), just sort of as an after-thought, but it's still pretty horrifying. Somewhere I read an article comparing it to Huckleberry Finn, and how the difference is that Twain makes an issue of it, whereas Tarkington just reports on it as it is.

What Now? said...

The Book Thief. Hated its pretentiously "literary" writing almost from page one. I finally quit trying at page 100 or so. And throwing it aside was actually kind of A Deal, since it was the all-school read that summer. And because all students and faculty read it (or tried to read it), there are still copies of it floating around the school. Every once in a while one finds its way into my room, and I immediately get rid of it. I won't have it in my room!

Anonymous said...

Bastard Out of Carolina. Just too much trauma/damage for me to get through. I wanted to bear witness to the reality of the experiences, but could not read it.

Janice said...

Most recently I tossed aside an overwrought memoir by a chef. It was painful. Fortunately, it was a library book so I could toss it back at them.

I agree that life is too short to spend it dutifully reading unappealing books. I read a lot in genres that get no respect: fantasy, SF, mysteries, romances, fanfiction. I spent my teen years and early twenties reading all the classics I thought that I should read. Many of them were disappointing. Now I don't try current literary fiction unless someone I trust gives me a compelling recommendation.

Flavia said...

What Now:

Pretentious, self-satisfied writing is a huge turn-off for me, too. It's actually what I disliked most about the The Goldfinch--the beginning and ending struck me as simultaneously pretentious and badly written on kind of a basic level--but I found the clockwork plot engrossing after about p. 70 or so.

Janice:

Yes, "unappealing" is probably the right word. By "crappy" I really only mean books that you, personally, dislike--I'm not trying to establish an absolute hierarchy based on high/low literary/nonliterary distinctions, and I definitely don't want to adjudicate taste for others!

(Though, okay: I admit to privately thinking a little bit less of people whose taste is consistently opposed to my own--they always seem to love books I can't stand and can't stand books I love. I know it's really just that we value different things, esp. when all the books we're talking about are classics or critically acclaimed or whatever. . . but obviously I believe that what I value is what's worth valuing!)

sophylou said...

Not gonna name the book, because for various reasons it's one I "should" read for my research, but I honestly don't know how I'm going to finish it. Part of it is that it feels too autobiographical, part of it is that the autobiographical issue the author is addressing is so very much not an issue for me, part of it is that it's sooooo loooooooong and there are so many other books I could be reading...

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

Flavia, I feel like this post is trolling me.

Flavia said...

CPP:

Apart from the fact that there's nothing here that should constitute trolling you (unbelief can be rendered compellingly in literature, as can the wide variety of purely secular forms of meaningfulness, the sublime, or the quest for them--and this novel doesn't treat THOSE any more effectively than it does religion!). . . I don't think you can be trolled on someone else's blog. You can pretty much only be the troll.

Anonymous said...


Zadie Smith's -On Beauty- was terrible. Not just bad, terrible. I did finish it, though. Just looked up the Joshua Ferris novel, which lost me at the (electronic) jacket copy:

" Paul O'Rourke is a man made of contradictions: he loves the world, but doesn't know how to live in it. He's a Luddite addicted to his iPhone, a dentist with a nicotine habit, a rabid Red Sox fan devastated by their victories, and an atheist not quite willing to let go of God. "

No actual Red Sox fan was "devastated" by the victories. We were overjoyed. With 3 championships in a decade we've gotten fat and happy and lost our pre-'04 angst, but that's not devastation.) If you create a character who is "devastated", you have either never met a Red Sox fan or observed life very badly. Granted, authors aren't responsible for jacket copy, but if this description bears any resemblance to the novel, the novel is worthless.

Cheers, TG

fourtinefork said...

Thank you, Flavia, for this! Your post might be what I need to allow myself to set aside Wolf Hall.

I'm only 50 pages or so from the end, but it does nothing for me.
I started it in June, and I have finished four other books in the meantime, but Wolf Hall has taunted me on my bedside. (By comparison, I finished Jessica Mitford's Hons and Rebels in three days.)

I'm annoyed I already bought Bring Up the Bodies. Ugh.

Doctor Cleveland said...

I'm a big fan of Jonathan Lethem's, but I abandoned Dissident Gardens.

It was a bad sign when I happened to put the book down near the end of the first chapter and not pick it up again for weeks, although I *intended* to.

After re-reading the first chapter from scratch, enjoying the second, and then getting bored again, I realized that the structure was not working (although a similar structure works wonderfully in A Visit from the Goon Squad), that there was an almost pathological avoidance of actual drama, and that, most of all, the novel was committed to the idea that all leftists were fizzled failures. To which I say, whatever.

PhysioProffe said...

"I don't think you can be trolled on someone else's blog."

Untrue! I do itte all the tyme!

Flavia said...

Fourtinefork:

I absolve you! It took me at least six months to read Wolf Hall. I liked things about it, but didn't find it gripping. (Bring Up the Bodies was more gripping but lacked everything I'd liked about WH.)

TG:

Good points. I liked Ferris's first novel and actually sought this one out in part because it sounded like it might be doing something interesting with issues of belief/unbelief. . . but no.

Funnily enough, I "read" On Beauty as an audiobook, with a terrific actor doing all the accents, and quite enjoyed it. Eventually I got around to picking up White Teeth, which I'd never read, and found it only okay. The plot was propulsive enough to make it a good book to read at the gym, but then I set it down a couple of chapters from the end and almost didn't bother to finish it because I'd grown bored. Made me wonder whether what I'd liked about On Beauty was really due to the actor than the text.

The last book I recall starting and not finishing was Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue. I like Chabon a lot and was eager to read this one, but there were absolutely no characters I found remotely interesting, and nothing much seemed to be happening. Got maybe 150 pages in before deciding I couldn't bear it.

Anonymous said...

Interesting re your -On Beauty- audiobook experience. Maybe it goes to show what a good actor can do even with weak lines. To me, the various accents all sounded a bit off, which I attributed to Smith's being British and not quite up to the task of reproducing a spectrum of American speech. Not that it's easy, as it wouldn't be easy for an American novelist to do a range of British accents either. But Smith really doesn't seem to know what she's doing. At one point, as I recall, the phrase "Brooklyn accent" is used to mean "trying to sound black." TG

Anonymous said...

Oh man . . . I've been asked to teach a course in a field only tangentially related to my real field. (Imagine a Shakespeare scholar asked to teach early American literature.) I knew very little about the field at the time I had to order books, so I looked at a bunch of people's syllabi online and went with books that seemed to be frequently assigned. Yes, that's right . . . it turns out that I have assigned a book I simply cannot get through. I am currently about 100 pages into this 400 page tome, and every time I pick it up, I fall asleep in ten minutes or less. Other than marketing it as a cure for insomnia, I don't know what to do!

Susan said...

Late to this party, but not finishing books is one of my not-so guilty pleasures. The one gat surprised me was Wolf Hall: I got maybe 1/3 of the way through it, and just never care enough to finish it.

That said, I've been aware for some time that my work responsibilities made reading fiction hard: I don't have the mental space often to enter a compelling fictional world. (And if it's a good book, I do enter it.).

Anonymous said...

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Because even if so many people liked it, and I liked the story, I could NOT do the writing style. Gah.

Confederacy of Dunces, and Catch 22. I thought I would like them because I am a fan of Hitchhiker's Guide, but so very much no.

I liked Zadie Smith's first book until the very end and it confused me. I recently read somewhere that her writing is very controlling, in that she describes as many of the details as possible to ensure you have the exact image she was thinking of.

Anonymous said...

Meg Wollitzer's "The Interestings", which was.. not. I made a valiant "quitters never win" effort for 300 pages or so before finally calling it. Can it be leisure reading if you're gritting your teeth through the whole thing?