It might seem like I’m nagging my writing friends by posting this. Honestly, I think it’s just funny. And painful. And funny.
(I first saw this on John Hodgman’s blog, which is a constant source of joy.)
Infinite Jest is one of my favorite novels. I think of characters and scenes and themes from it nearly every day. But it took me several attempts to read it. I’d get to about page 68, the middle of which reads like this:
YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDERGARMENT
Doctors tend to enter the arenas of their profession’s practice with a brisk good cheer that they have to then stop and try to mute a bit when the arena they’re entering is a hospital’s fifth floor, a psych ward, where brisk good cheer would amount to a kind of gloating. This is why doctors on psyche wards so often wear a vaguely fake frown of puzzled concentration, if and when you see them in fifth-floor halls. And this is why a hospital M.D. — who’s usually hale and pink-cheeked and poreless, and who almost always smells unusually clean and good — approaches any psyche patient under his care with a professional manner somewhere between bland and deep, a distant but sincere concern that’s divided evenly between the patient’s subjective discomfort and the hard facts of the case.
You may not have noticed, because they are not usually present in novels, but there were no footnotes in that paragraph. If you’d been reading Infinite Jest you might have noticed, because it’s full of them. It’s a hard book to read, what with the flipping back and forth to follow the footnotes and the changes in time and voice, and the multiple plotlines, and the violence. There’s some strong violence.
Infinite Jest is 1079 pages long, including front matter and footnotes. The front matter doesn’t matter, but the footnotes are integral to the experience. (I bought a hardcopy in 1997; it had come out in 1996. I suspect it didn’t fly off the shelves, but it is still in print.)
(Let me reiterate that I love this book, and that I tease because I love. Please read Infinite Jest. It’s worth the effort. Let’s discuss when you’re done.)
My point: Not only am I not afraid of a difficult book, I love a difficult book. Moby Dick? A classic. I read it all, including the details about the boats and the types of whales. Crime and Punishment? I’d love to debate Raskolnikov’s motivations with you. Les Miserables? Oui, si vous plait.
But there are difficult books that have beaten me — or at least seem destined to lay me low. Here I will list some that have rebuffed more than one attempt by me:
Samuel Johnson Is Indignant: Stories Lydia Davis writes short stories that capture the essence of things. She boils the world down so fiercely that each piece takes time to absorb. Trying to read a collection of her works is like trying to drink a gallon of consomme. Her skill is such that I don’t feel strong enough to finish this collection.
House of Leaves This is a scary book. It’s meant to be scary: Even the quotes on the back call it "Thrillingly alive, sublimely creepy, distressingly scary…" I read about 5 pages and started to fear my own house, and it’s a pretty bright and cheerful place. I intend to come back to this book, but only if I have a house full of people making cheerful noises to counteract the crawling text and frightening colored words. I’m serious about that.
The Fortress of Solitude I love the way Jonathan Lethem writes, so fluidly and clearly and sweetly. Motherless Brooklyn is another of my favorite novels. But I keep trying to read this more recent novel of his, and I can’t fight my way through it. I think I grasp the characters, but maybe I get them too well; I fear for what the novel is going to do with them. I’ve tried six times now, and I’m only on page 91.
Foucault’s Pendulum This one is hard to explain. The Name of the Rose was one of those rare works that I enjoyed equally well in both book and movie form. Eco’s writing is gorgeous. But his writing style is old-school, which means that the opening 100 pages or so feel like throat-clearing, stage-setting, and general foundation building. I know there’s something big coming, I know I should care, but I can’t get a foothold. This old-style writing hasn’t been a problem for me in other books in recent years (Cakes and Ale comes to mind), but here I’m having more than a usual amount of trouble.
Don Quixote This novel is considered the first modern novel. Edith Grossman’s translation is considered to be learned, clever, funny, perfect. It is still a 900+ page novel that I bogged down in on page 102. I was able to find the funny in it, but reading this book requires strength of mind and focus — qualities of which I have short supply at 10pm on a weeknight, which is when I’d like to read a bit. So I’m mired in this one too.
I haven’t given up entirely on these works. For each, I have a strong incentive to dig in and enjoy. But for each, I currently feel unable to tackle the task.
What about you? Are there books you’ve started but stopped reading — not because you found them wanting but because you found yourself coming up short? You can tell us; we understand.
From the mailbag:
Friday February 8th at 7pm is the next UPWords at the Union Project featuring writers Lori Jakiela and Stacey Waite. Join us for an intimate evening of free entertainment. UPWords is a monthly reading series generally occurring the 2nd Friday of each month. Union Project is located at 801 N. Negley Ave., on the corner of Stanton Ave. and Negley Ave. For more information please visit www.unionproject.org, email email@example.com or call 412-363-4550 x 26.
Lori Jakiela is the author of a memoir, Miss New York Has Everything (Warner 2006), and a poetry collection, The Regulars (Liquid Paper Press 2001). Her second memoir, Call Your Mother, is forthcoming. Jakiela’s essays and poems have appeared in literary journals, newspapers, and anthologies in the U.S. and the U.K., including The Chicago Tribune, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, The Pittsburgh Post Gazette, 5 AM, Tears in the Fence, River Styx, Nerve Cowboy, and elsewhere. Jakiela is an Associate Professor of English at The University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg.
Winner of the 2004 Frank O’Hara Prize for Poetry for her first chapbook entitled Choke. Stacey Waite teaches writing and gender studies courses at the University of Pittsburgh. Her poems have appeared most recently in Poet Lore, Nimrod, 5AM, West Branch, Chiron Review and Pearl.
If, like me, you’re a fan of the Gist Street Reading Series and uncertain how you’ll endure these lonely months when it’s on hiatus, take a look at this announcement:
On January 11th from 7pm-9pm, Union Project will host their monthly reader/writer series UPWords. The evening will highlight esteemed fiction author Sherrie Flick and acclaimed poet Nancy Krygowski.
UPwords, hosted and coordinated by fiction writer Damian Dressick, will be held in the Union Project’s Atrium and is free to the public. The Union Project located at 801 N. Negley Ave. is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing community space to connect, create, and celebrate. Damian teaches creative writing and literature at Robert Morris University, he is also the 2007 winner of Harriette Arnow Award for short fiction.
Sherrie Flick is an award- winning fiction writer whose work has been included in two anthologies from Norton: New Sudden Fiction and Flash Fiction Forward. Nancy Krygowski is a poet and an adult literacy instructor; her first book of poems Velocity won the 2006 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press. Sherrie Flick and Nancy Krygowski are both Assistant Artistic Directors, and co-founders of the Gist Street Reading Series.
UPWords is a free monthly reader writer series that is held at the Union Project the second Friday of every month. More information about the Union Project, and upcoming events can be found at www.unionproject.org.
For more Gist Street joy, please check out the new Gist Street Reading Series Pod-snack. These short monthly podcasts are recordings from past readings — a single poem for example, or a short story, each read by the author. New pod-snacks will be published on the first Friday of each month. The first was Richard Jackson; tomorrow we’ll have Pam Painter reading her story "The New Year." Lovely.
It’s time I reread Slaughterhouse-Five, I think.
Saw this at Pinky’s Paperhaus — I still haven’t finished logging my library in LibraryThing, but marking up this list seems doable.
But who came up with this wacked out list?? Such bizarre choices.
Rules: “Look at the list of books below. Bold the ones you’ve read, italicize the ones you want to read, cross out the ones you won’t touch with a 10 foot pole, put a cross (+) in front of the ones on your book shelf, and asterisk (*) the ones you’ve never heard of.”
The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown) (Can this book please go away?)
2. +Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)+ (This book was formative for me.)
3. To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
4. Gone With The Wind (Margaret Mitchell) (War, war war!)
5. +The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (Tolkien)+ (And why are these three books listed in this out-of-order sequence?)
6. +The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (Tolkien)+
7. +The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers (Tolkien)+
8. Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgomery) (Also formative for me, although I’m sure I’d never get through it now.)
9. *Outlander (Diana Gabaldon)*
10. *A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry)*
11. +Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Rowling)+ (I really enjoy the Potter books, despite the poor writing in the first few.)
Angels and Demons (Dan Brown)
13. +Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Rowling)+
14. A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving) (Only kinda want to read this.)
15. Memoirs of a Geisha (Arthur Golden)
16. +Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Rowling)+
17. *Fall on Your Knees (Ann-Marie MacDonald)*
The Stand (Stephen King)
19. +Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Rowling)+
20. +Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)+ (I will always love Rochester.)
21. +The Hobbit (Tolkien)+
22. +The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)+
23. Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)
24. The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold)+ (I’ve had this on my bookshelf for ages — I wonder if I really do want to read it.)
25. +Life of Pi (Yann Martel)+
26. +The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)+ (Among my favorite books ever.)
27. +Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte)+
28. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (C. S. Lewis)
29. East of Eden (John Steinbeck)
30. Tuesdays with Morrie (Mitch Albom)31. Dune (Frank Herbert)
32. The Notebook (Nicholas Sparks)
33. Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand)
34. 1984 (George Orwell)
35. The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley)
36. *The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett)*
37. *The Power of One (Bryce Courtenay)*
38. *I Know This Much is True (Wally Lamb)*
39. *The Red Tent (Anita Diamant)*
40. *The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho)*
41. The Clan of the Cave Bear (Jean M. Auel)
42. The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)
43. Confessions of a Shopaholic (Sophie Kinsella)
44. The Five People You Meet In Heaven (Mitch Albom)
46. Anna Karenina (Tolstoy)
47. The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas)
48. Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt)
49. The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)
50. She’s Come Undone (Wally Lamb)
51. The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)
52. A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens)
53. Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card)
54. +Great Expectations (Charles Dickens)+ (Another big favorite.)
55. +The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)+ (Ooh, and this one.)
56. *The Stone Angel (Margaret Laurence)*
57. +Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Rowling)+
58. The Thorn Birds (Colleen McCullough)
59. The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood) (Finished it, but didn’t like it.)
60. The Time Traveller’s Wife (Audrew Niffenegger)
61. Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky) (I’m about ready to think about rereading this one.)
The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand)
63. War and Peace (Tolstoy)
64. Interview With The Vampire (Anne Rice)
65. *Fifth Business (Robertson Davis)*
66. +One Hundred Years Of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)+
67. The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants (Ann Brashares)
68. Catch-22 (Joseph Heller)
69. Les Miserables (Hugo)
70. The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
71. Bridget Jones’ Diary (Fielding)
72. +Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)+
73. Shogun (James Clavell)
74. The English Patient (Michael Ondaatje)
75. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
76. The Summer Tree (Guy Gavriel Kay)
77. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith)
78. The World According To Garp (John Irving)
79. *The Diviners (Margaret Laurence)*
80. Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)
81. *Not Wanted On The Voyage (Timothy Findley)*
82. Of Mice And Men (Steinbeck)
83. Rebecca (Daphne DuMaurier)
84. *Wizard’s First Rule (Terry Goodkind)*
85. Emma (Jane Austen)
86. Watership Down(Richard Adams)
87. Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
88. The Stone Diaries (Carol Shields)
89. *Blindness (Jose Saramago)*
90. *Kane and Abel (Jeffrey Archer)*
91. *In The Skin Of A Lion (Ondaatje)*
Lord of the Flies (Golding)
93. The Good Earth (Pearl S. Buck)
94. The Secret Life of Bees (Sue Monk Kidd)
95. The Bourne Identity (Robert Ludlum)
96. The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton)
97. +White Oleander (Janet Fitch)+
98. A Woman of Substance (Barbara Taylor Bradford)
The Celestine Prophecy (James Redfield)
100. +Ulysses (James Joyce) +
(This I want to read, but I also sort of fear it.)