I pride myself on always finishing a book, no matter how arduous it is. There have been plenty of bad juju page-turners I’ve eagerly slogged through over the years…cough cough – The Da Vinci Code – cough cough – The Ruins. Hell, I even got through the vile piece of trash that was Clive Barker’s Mister B Gone. I don’t know if it’s the writer or the masochist in me – but I always finish a book.
Well…almost always. Some books I just can’t seem to pick up after putting them down – those anti page-turners. Some of these may actually be good books but just not my cup of tea, and I struggle to return to them when a Raymond Carver collection is sitting on my shelf or the latest issue of The New Yorker has just arrived.
Right now I’m suffering through a double whammy with two novels that couldn’t be farther apart in theme and style -Steve Earle’s new psychedelic Baby Boomer ode to the 1960’s, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive; and the uber-classic big thick novel that is Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Despite my most valiant efforts, I can’t seem to finish either one of them, and I fear they may join my short list of dun dun dun….
Books I Will Never Finish Reading
Title: I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive
- Author: Steve Earle
- Sample Piece of Prose: Then sometime in the deep of the third night, Doc sat bolt upright and wide-eyed to find that he had outrun some unnamed denizen of his dreams only to awaken in the palpable agony in the world of light. Pains the likes of which he had imagined in only the most twisted medical-school horror fantasies assailed him, as if his spinal cord had been neatly but not necessarily painlessly removed, leaving him raw and empty for an instant before the hollow was filled with alternating layers of fire and ice that froze him and burned him…(pg 120) In other words…he was going through withdrawl…yadda yadda yadda…now he was clean.
- Reason I Wanted to Read It: I was totally suckered in by the cover and the glowing blurbs from other writers I enjoy (most notably Ron Rash). Steve Earle is a hella-cool musician and I liked the idea of a singer-songwriter taking a stab at writing a novel – an experimental novel about a heroin addicted back-alley abortion doctor in early 1960’s Texas who is haunted by the ghost of Hank Williams.
- Reason I Put it Down: The charmingly clichéd misfit characters from classic rock, blues and country songs don’t translate into real people when populating a novel. The druggie counter-culture of the 1960’s has been done to death, though Earle’s attempt to create philosophical miscreants ala Deadwood did hook me at first, and after about 60 pages of this stuff…I couldn’t have cared less. The Kennedy Assassination backdrop is forced…as are the bits of gritty magical realism. Bottom line – Earle creates a vivid and colorful sense of “stuff” but not of characters worthy of a full-length book. Maybe short stories are the better brethren of song lyrics?
Title: War and Peace
- Author: Leo Tolstoy
- Sample Piece of Prose: Each visitor performed the ceremony of greeting this old aunt whom not one of them knew, not one of them wanted to know, and not one of them cared about; Anna Pavlovna observed these greetings with mournful and solemn interest and silent approval. (pg 17) And I pretty much feel about this old novel the same way Anna P. feels about these greetings.
- Reason I Wanted to Read It: Umm…hello…it’s War and Peace, yo! I felt it my duty (as I had with Ulysses a few years back) to read this sucker at some point in my life, and I when I found I could download it for free through iBooks onto my iPad, my worries about having to lift weights before I could tackle its burdensome 1,000+ pages were vanquished and I thought, “No better time than the present!”
- Reason I Put it Down: I’m actually still trying to get through this thing. Maybe it’s the stilted nature of this particular translation, or maybe it’s just the characters (there are too many of them…and too many that are similar…and none that I find particularly fascinating)…but I can’t help feeling like this is a reading assignment in high school…and I always hated being forced to read things in school. Maybe it’s my own little piece of personal revolution battling with the sense of pride I feel whenever I tackle the big classics of world literature. I want to conquer this…but I just don’t think I have the will or the way.
Title: The Alienist
- Author: Caleb Carr
- Sample Piece of Prose: Kreizler turned away with an expression of mild disgust. “My God, Moore, I should like to get the particulars of your infancy someday. This irrepressible sexual mania -” (pg 76) I shant like those details, thank you, very much, sir!
- Reason I Wanted to Read It: This thing was praised to high-heaven and became a best-seller in 1994 when I was just entering high school and going through my “I’m fascinated by anything super dark” phase. There were even talks of adapting this gruesomely massive tome to the silver screen…though that never came to fruition.
- Reason I Put it Down: Detailing the complex tale of a crime reporter trying to catch a heinous serial killer stalking young prostitutes in 1896 Manhattan the novel was thick with historical atmosphere and graphic details of the murders…too thick for my blood. When not being revolted, I was numbed by the stilted style of writing and lack of engaging characters. Carr’s novel committed the greatest of crimes – boring the reader to death.
Title: The Poe Shadow
- Author: Matthew Pearl
- Sample Piece of Prose: How startling, how uplifting that was, such a lofty visionary bringing himself to personally address a mere reader of three and twenty years! … There was the very nature of the raven’s shadow explained just for me! (pg 13) Privy to ones that would such romance Elaine from Seinfeld, I fear thee use too many exclamation points at the most excitable age of three and twenty years!
- Reason I Wanted to Read It: It sounded like a win/win proposition. I love Poe – and I loved the idea of having fictional characters trying to solve a real historical mystery surrounding Poe’s death.
- Reason I Put it Down: For the same reasons I put down The Alienist – the stilted style of writing and the stuffy characters bored me to death.
I sympathize with the impulse to finish a book once I’ve cracked it open. And there are more than a few that I wish I hadn’t.
I think the one that finally convinced me that it was okay to give up was Anne Rice’s “Queen of the Damned” back in the ’90s. I was dubious upon finishing her first book, and then “Vampire Lestat” turned out a bit more enjoyable to read (ridiculous rock star plotline aside). But that one just irritated me to the point of putting it down with less than 100 pages to go.
That said, I remember The Alienist. I didn’t find it boring, but its detailed fetishes and desiccation of corpses definitely pushed my patience.
Julio – based on what I’ve heard about Anne Rice, she is one whose books I would never want to pick up in the first place. And it’s funny, while reading passages from The Alienist for this piece, it does seem like maybe it was actually better (or shall we say less boring) than I remembered – but still, I have no desire to return to it. –DHS
Regarding Anne Rice: Good. Call.
There are quite a few books I’ve started and not finished….for the simple reason that another book came along like temptation…..
Good point. –DHS
David, I had to laugh hysterically when I read this. The first few lines made me think about my own stubborn insistence to finish books, but it also reminded me of the first book I actually decided not to finish. It was… none other than….
War and Peace! I remember getting to about page 900, discovering I didn’t care a fig about what was going on, and I still had another 900 pages to go.
I am now much more comfortable not finishing books I don’t enjoy. It was Thomas Pynchon who pushed me over the edge. I had to force myself to finish Mason and Dixon and didn’t enjoy a page of it. For some reason I started reading Against the Day and about 200 pages into it (of something like over 1000) I realized I wasn’t enjoying it and wondered why I was forcing myself to be miserable. It’s one thing to force myself to finish watching a bad 2 hour movie. A 1000 page book is another matter completely.
Oh, and the prose from I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive looks dreadful from the sample you provided. It reminds me of a blogger who uses even more tortured prose. I send snippets of his or her work to my friends to boggle their minds. But writing like that makes me feel a lot better about my own writing.
Jason – LMAO about your experience with War and Peace! Pynchon strikes me as an aquired taste. I’ve yet to sample his work. As for I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, Earle would’ve been better off stylizing his prose after Hank Williams’ lyrics from the song. –DHS
Don’t give up on Tolstoy! It took me 1.5 years to read “Anna Karenina” but I’m glad I finished it. I think every person who writes creatively needs to experience the 19th century novel and Tolstoy is a great example of why these novels were written — the people back then didn’t have TV, movies, telephones, radio or any of the other gadgets and electronics that we have today….along with short attention spans. Novels were considered the height of entertainment. People read them aloud to each other, for god’s sakes! So, as you slog through “War and Peace,” try to place yourself in the 19th century and appreciate Tolstoy’s digressions, soap opera complications and plethora of characters. And watch out for the two male characters whose lives start out diametrically opposed and distant and end up dovetailing together by the end….(smile)
As for Caleb Carr and “The Alienist” — I loved it. Again, Carr wrote in a style reminiscent of 19th century novels because of the time period of the story. I still remember some rather vivid and terrifying scenes, especially toward the end when they’re finally figuring out what’s going on. Plus it was excellent reading for what I was going through at the time — I was ill and spending a lot of time in hospital radiology depts. going through procedures that seemed to take forever. And I’d be starving and thirsty and Carr’s novel really kept me distracted.
I’ve been wracking my brain about what books I’ve started but haven’t finished — the only one I can think of, and I fully intend to return to it when I’m in a different frame of mind, is “The Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I took it to read in the hospital post-surgery a couple years ago but unfortunately I developed complications that left me with constant nausea and I couldn’t read. After that cleared up, I was too hungry. After that passed, every time I tried to start the novel, it reminded me of when I had the nausea. So, I gave up. I made it through the first chapter, though, before I stopped….
Cinda, you make excellent points about Tolstoy. I do plan to try to continue with it. It may be years before I finish. –DHS
I totally agree with Cinda about the 19th century novel. I love their appreciation for language, something that is largely missing today. But there are so many better 19th century novels than War and Peace. I’ll take Henry James, Dostoevsky, Balzac, or Melville any day over Tolstoy. (I have to admit I never could get through Anna Karenina either — same situation: 500 pages in with 500 pages to go and I just didn’t care). Which reminds me, I have two Balzac novels sitting on my shelf unread…. I think I know what I want to read next.
Hey, Joe Wright is doing a new film adaptation of Anna Karenina – might be good. –DHS
Dave, I have yet to give into the impulse to put down a book in the sense of “stop reading it and maybe I’ll come back to it.” Oh, I understand the impulse well, and the day may come faster than I think when I do it. The thing is, it’s usually with “classic” books that this instinct kicks into high gear for me. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and anything by John Steinbeck, were the worst offenders. How I made it through those “supposedly great” books, I’ll never know.
Honestly, the only book I ever stopped reading was because someone stole the book from me. I can’t remember the name of it. I was in grade school and it was a YA novel about an American boy and girl who somehow found themselves in Egypt and somehow found themselves looking for a lost tomb of some emperor while being pursued by some bad guys. Just when I got to the part where they were in the tomb and about to find the emperor’s burial spot—-the book vanished! I never found out how it ended. I’m sure you’ll agree, that’s a high crime on whoever stole it.
Chris – man, what a cliffhanger! –DHS