Books Partly Read

18 Oct

One feature of my bookshelves are those books partly read, their bookmarks sticking out, anywhere between page one and one hundred and something-or-other. Unfinished business, then. There’s a variety of reasons why this may have happened. Perhaps I misplaced the book for a while and started reading something else. Maybe I’ve been busy with some other activity. And from time to time, a book just doesn’t engage me and so I put it back on the shelf.

On occasion, I actually get around to reading these books. Such has been the case with two novels that I’ve read this year (I’d previously reached pages 110 and 125 of them, respectively). I wrote in an earlier post about returning to The Glass Bead Game after twenty-five years. A mere five years have passed since I put down Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves.  It wasn’t that I didn’t like it. It was just that my life was going through one of its periodic phases of turmoil and the structure of Danielewski’s book was proving a bit much for my shot-away attention span. But I’ve picked it up again and am right back there with it.

Mystery Door

I don’t make a habit of denigrating other writers’ work in print. In this case, though, I can’t see that it matters, since the established writers upon whose work I’m about to comment won’t ever come here and wouldn’t care what I have to say even if they did (I followed another such writer whose book I had read the other day on Twitter, complimenting him on his work – needless to say, I got no reply). I’d felt obliged to try the novels of David Mitchell and Tom McCarthy because they’d been recommended to me and because they’re English writers whose work has been much trumpeted for its experimental nature. Cloud Atlas made its way back to the shelves after a few pages (it wasn’t the first time that it’d done so either). It’s taken me months to reach page 31 of C – great title, though – and it finds itself in danger of returning to the library before long. It’s aristocratic Everyman is so far removed from my experience – and that of most readers, I would imagine – that it fails to engage and could only be the work of a writer from an elite background (like my mute Twitter friend). And experimental? Hmm… Now House of Leaves, that’s another matter. It’s a bold effort far more deserving of the title, in my view. The novel would appear to be in much ruder health over on the other side of the water. 

Assuming you haven’t stopped reading this post part way through, I’ll make a confession. There are some books that I know really ought to appeal to me – Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers, to name but two – the beginnings of which I’ve never got past. The former was translated by William Weaver whose work with Italo Calvino’s writing I admire. And I’ve read a number of novels by the latter. Nor do I give up easily. I am, after all, the man who has read and enjoyed supposedly unreadable tomes such as James Joyce’s Ulysses and Samuel Beckett’s novels. And yet I’ve never got beyond the gatehouses of those two books. Sometimes, perhaps, you just have to face facts – you and a book aren’t going to get on and you need to cut your losses.

Here’s a list of part-finished reads with page numbers from a survey of my shelves (naturally, the list is incomplete).

Strindberg, Olof Lagerkrantz, p162

Like a Fiery Elephant, Jonathan Coe, p15

Peter Gabriel, Spencer Bright, p56

A Painter of Our Time, John Berger, p113

Crow Country, Mark Cocker, p86

Beechcombings, Richard Mabey, p16

Antwerp, Roberto Bolaño, p13

Does this ever happen to anyone else? Do you keep on reading books even when you’re not enjoying them? Or do you give them away and de-clutter your bookshelves?

And then, of course, there are the books partly written, but that’s the subject of another post entirely…

All text and image © PSR 2013


4 Responses to “Books Partly Read”

  1. October 18, 2013 at 10:55 pm #

    I always keep reading books, even if I hate them. In fact, I’ve never NOT finished a book. I think it’s kind of a mild compulsion on my part. Although House of Leaves was one that I LOVED from start to finish. And if you ever get the chance to see Danielewski read in person, it’s not to be missed. I saw him last October in San Francisco reading from his new book, The Fifty Year Sword, and he was PHENOMENAL. House of Leaves is the perfect book for Halloween season too!

    • Paul Sutton Reeves October 19, 2013 at 8:18 am #

      Hi Lauren and thanks for your comments. On balance, I’m happy to cut my losses on books from which I’m not getting anything. It’s the ones that I feel really ought to appeal to me that I find troubling. I’m always willing to give those another go.

      Lucky Lauren! I can imagine Danielewski reading well. Unfortunately, I can’t see him visiting my provincial neck of the woods any time soon… It’s an interesting book, that’s for sure.

  2. Mari Biella October 19, 2013 at 6:27 am #

    Interesting post as always, Paul – and congratulations on the reading last week. You may not feel that it went especially well, but I admire anyone who can get up and read their own work in public.

    Although I hate leaving books unread, there are a few that have just defeated me – ‘Ulysses’ was one of them, I’m afraid, along with ‘Finnegans Wake’. Others include a number of other established classics, such as ‘Middlemarch’ and ‘The Forsyte Saga’. Obviously in these cases it’s not been the fault of the books themselves (no book becomes a classic without reason, surely), so I can only conclude that the problem has been mine.

    But then again, maybe books are like people, and you just get on better with some than with others. I remember reading Doris Lessing’s advice to readers, which was along the following lines: don’t read a book just because you think you should. Don’t continue reading a book if you’re not getting anything from it. Life’s too short. Ultimately, I’d agree with that (though, sadly, Lessing’s own ‘The Golden Notebook’ was another novel that I almost put back on the shelves, unfinished).

    Why couldn’t you get on with ‘The Name of the Rose’, then? I love it myself.

  3. Paul Sutton Reeves October 19, 2013 at 8:48 am #

    Hi Mari and thanks for your comments.

    I think that’s absolutely right – life is too short to waste on books that you don’t like. Books that are still in print one hundred and more years later must have something about them. That doesn’t mean that they’re to everyone’s taste. I’ve enjoyed Peacock, Dostoevsky and Chekhov but not much else that I’ve read from the period. What a Yahoo, eh? I kept reading ‘Ulysses’ for the simple reason that I was enjoying it. I can see that it wouldn’t appeal to everyone, though.

    ‘The Name of the Rose’ is definitely one of those books that I should like, not due to Eco’s literary reputation but because I like the cut of his jib. Who could resist a semiotician-novelist? And yet the opening pages bored me. Perhaps I was in the wrong frame of mind at the time. Your recommendation tells me that I must try again, Mari.

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