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.