Red Books

Red Books, originally uploaded by PPDIGITAL.

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:


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.

10 replies on “Unfinished”

  1. I read so much student work that when it comes time to read for pleasure (which I don’t have much time for), I will not read a difficult book. I read work that is difficult to follow all day long, albeit in different ways. I don’t say this to mock my students. Lord knows my first stories were hard to follow, the prose tangled in knots, impossibly clotted. I’m just saying that–these days–I don’t want a struggle. In fact, a friend of mine who also teaches writing says that at the end of the day, all she really wants to do is “read” an episode of Law and Order. Beginning, middle, end. Boom. Lights out.

    This article about “difficult” writing you might find interesting: http://www.slate.com/id/2128405/

  2. I’m still working through Infinite Jest! We will need to discuss once I get “somewhere” with it.

  3. Cathy: Most days, I can handle nothing more complex than an episode of “Good Eats” — and then only one that doesn’t involve puppets. I don’t like the puppets sometimes. So I am with you on the easy-reading. Then again, I know how much I love to be lost in the other-world that certain books bring. I miss that.

    Also, one of the difficult books that I finished but will not pretend I liked was Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Of all people to carry the standard of populist fiction, I can think of few people less well-suited. (I say this with the conviction of one who knows he will never read this blog, especially its comments.)

    I’ll hold off for now from talking about McSweeney’s and Ben Marcus, mostly because I don’t trust my thoughts about them due to envy. But that would be a good thing to write about, and soon, so thanks for bringing it to front of mind.

    rebelliousflaw: “still working through”???? You just bought it a few days ago! Please take your time reading it or you’ll make me feel like a slacker.

  4. I made it through Moby Dick, but I can’t say I liked it much after the first few chapters. I was all like, “Die, already! Die! Die!” by the end.

    I don’t remember having so much trouble with Don Quixote, but that was a couple of years ago, and I have no idea which translation it was—some quite old Penguin edition.

    I have never been able to get more than thirty pages into One Hundred Years of Solitude, however, even knowing that I had the same problem with Love in the Time of Cholera but loved it once I got out of the first chapter or so. I also tried many times, though not in the last fifteen years, to read Midnight’s Children; no dice. And Adam Bede‘s been lying idle for about two years now, I think. I can get through Eliot’s books eventually, but I don’t enjoy them.

  5. I looked for Infinite Jest in the campus book store, but no luck. I’m going to check out Half Price Books, and then go from there.

    The other books you list had me all excited! House of Leaves, as you know, is one of my favorite books ever! Then again, so is Foucault’s Pendulum. I encounteded Name of the Rose after reading Foucault’s Pendulum and I’m having a hard time caring about the story. I haven’t finished it yet, actually, and I started reading it about 3 years ago, so I’m having the same problem as you are, but with opposite books. I would definately say that those two books are easily in my top 10 favs, possibly in my top 5.

    The one book that I cannot finish, no matter how many times I try, is Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. I’ve started reading it at least 5 different times, each time making it about 200 pages in, then something catches my interest, or something comes up, and I just have to put it down for a while. Most of these books require a significant reserve of abstract, complex thinking and when I walk away for a month or two (or even a year), I have to start over from the begining. Also, I refuse to read the “companion” book to “understand” Gravity’s Rainbow. Pynchon won’t defeat me! That book is my Everest!

    Great post!

  6. India: I remember finding Moby Dick oddly funny. I was glad by the end though too. As for One Hundred Years of Solitude, I trudged through that, not really enjoying it, and then set it aside when I was a few pages from the end. I never went back to it. That’s kind of embarrassing.

    Dawn: I haven’t attempted Gravity’s Rainbow, but I did try to read Mason & Dixon and failed to get far. I liked The Crying of Lot 49 and want so much to read more Pynchon, but his long books are tougher.

  7. I love House of Leaves. It’s crazy unsettling… I remember once holding the book right up to my face while reading it because I was convinced that creepy things were going to start happening at the edges of my vision.

    Foucault’s Pendulum took me ages to read. It seems like there’s a huge amount of superfluous material in there, I think I only got through it out of bloodymindedness. The payoff’s quite good though, I suppose.

    Tristram Shandy is worth mentioning, seeing as it’s essentially designed to put people off. There’s good comedy in it but it’s impossible to read more than ten pages in one go without your brain dribbling out your ears.

    If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend The Illuminatus! Trilogy. The narration is all over the place (switching narrators and tenses mid-page/paragraph/sentence) but once you get into the spirit of it it’s enormous fun.

  8. I carried House of Leaves around with me for months during my freshman year of college, reading a little at a time and then avoiding it for days when sufficiently bothered by it.

    In other, only slightly on-a-tangent news, I love Crime and Punishment. LOVE.

    And now I’m debating whether I should borrow Infinite Jest from the library or just outright buy it. Hmm.

  9. I don’t if I could take Infinite Jest. There’s a David Foster Wallace essay in a book I got for Christmas and the footnotes in that story are driving me crazy.

    I’ve started Anna Karenina about five times. I know I’ll finish it– eventually, but not yet.

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