On abandoning books

Once I start reading a book, I’m always extremely reluctant to put it down without finishing it. It always seems like I could be making a mistake in doing so, that I’m returning the book to its shelf just before reading the page that would justify all the time I’d invested in it before. Still, though, there are a few books I’ve abandoned and haven’t yet returned to: here are my confessions.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West (I got to page 292 out of 1,150—the bookmark is still in the Penguin paperback that sits on my shelf). I picked this up some time after the NATO involvement in the Bosnian war. West’s descriptions of landscapes and cultures are gorgeous and perceptive as I remember them, but graduate school got in the way of my being able to stay with the book. I can see me taking another pass at this—it’s available on iBooks with an introduction by Christopher Hitchens, and an electronic version with a search function (along with quick access to the Internet for the glossing of names and places) would make it easier to get through.

Imperial by William T. Vollmann (I reached page 181 out of 1,125). Vollmann’s books are generally doorstoppers that deal with unpleasant subjects, but he’s a pleasure to read because he’s so considerate of his readers, without making undue concessions to them or dumbing down his subject matter. The seven-volume edition of Rising Up and Rising Down that was published by McSweeney’s is an exhaustive catalog of all the ways in which one human being can be horrible to another, but I was able to get through it in six weeks of steady reading because Vollmann has a beautiful prose style, he’s acutely conscious of structure (so that even if you don’t always know where he’s going, you’re always sure that he’s going somewhere), and he has frequent chapter breaks, so that you can read him for ten minutes or two hours and reach a good stopping point. Rising Up and Rising Down is one of the most profound reading experiences I’ve had—I regularly found myself not agreeing with Vollmann about the nature and motivations of violent acts, but the process of figuring out why I didn’t agree was immensely rewarding, and his discussion of expediency changed the way I think about human behavior.

So why didn’t I finish Imperial, which is shorter by two thirds? I think it was probably because having read Rising Up and Rising Down (3,352 pages) and The Royal Family (774 pages) I just decided that I’d read enough of Vollmann, as much as I like him. (By comparison, my three-volume Library of America edition of the complete prose of Herman Melville clocks in at roughly 4,000 pages.) But I can see myself coming back to Imperial at some point later in life, too.

The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek (I got to page 232 out of 800). Again, this is a case where reading for graduate school got in the way of my pleasure reading. It wasn’t a difficult read; it just wasn’t the best time right then for me to read it.

The Witching Hour by Anne Rice—the only Rice novel I’ve ever picked up. I think I got through a third of it—I don’t have the copy on my shelves. This would have been twenty years ago. As many a well-meant rejection letter from an agent or editor says, it was “not for me.”

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. I admit it: I was bored by this one. Though later on I did end up reading Radcliffe’s The Italian at someone’s suggestion, and got on with it a lot better.

Parallel Stories by Péter Nádas: Hoo boy. I still feel conflicted about this one, which I just abandoned this morning, closing the book on page 320 of 1,133. (It was published on the same day as Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, another brick that I did actually complete reading.) My immediate feeling is that I’m not sure that I’ve come across another book that is so long that also wants so little to be read, and the only other novels I’ve read that have such a dimly nihilistic view of human nature are Patrick White’s The Vivisector and William Gass’s The Tunnel.

But those two books, as hard as they can be to get through, have shapes, and a kind of narrative momentum. Parallel Stories, on the other hand, seems to be deliberately, obstinately shapeless, with narrative arcs that have beginnings and no endings, or endings and no beginnings, or sometimes only middles. Some reviews indicate that the resistance to traditional narrative convention is a deliberate choice on Nádas’s part, that it’s meant to echo the shapelessness of human life as it’s lived, but there are ways in which other writers have successfully portrayed that shapelessness while still retaining control of their story (William Gaddis’s The Recognitions does this, I’d argue).

On a sentence-by-sentence level, or even on the level of individual chapters, the writing is beautiful. The absence of quotation marks that’s criticized in some reviews as an instance of pretension isn’t really a problem—the difference in style between dialogue and narrative is clear enough without them (though at times it can be hard to tell who’s speaking in a room full of people). And in the first third there are some amazing set-pieces: in particular, I’m thinking about an intense thirty-page chapter that consists entirely of a depiction of people living in separate rooms in a building, all of them listening to a ringing telephone, each of them expecting or willing someone else to drop what they’re doing and answer it.

But when it comes to seeing the forest rather than looking at each of its trees, I’m just not getting along with the novel. After 300-odd pages of tiny print I’m seeing a book that is defiantly uninterested in the basic pleasures of plot; nor does it offer the philosophical weight of the writers to which Nádas is regularly compared (Musil; Mann; Tolstoy) that could conceivably make such plotlessness an asset instead of a liability. (Though, to be fair, I think the similarities to those writers are claims that others are making for the book, rather than claims the book is making for itself—I don’t think Parallel Stories is meant to be a philosophical novel on the order of The Man Without Qualities or The Magic Mountain, so much as a meticulous series of character studies.)

Though with 800 pages left in the book, I could be wrong about it—that’s the thing. It’s going back on the shelf, but an abandoned book is never really abandoned—if you don’t finish a book, it doesn’t disappear. (It took me three tries to get all the way through Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow when I first came across it, and I ended up going from not really liking it at first to writing a dissertation chapter on it.) I may wait to see if people are still talking about Parallel Stories in ten years, though. If it’s good now, it’ll be good later.

In the meantime, I’m taking a trip to New York City today, and I have to say, perhaps with a touch of guilt or regret, that it’s a relief to know I won’t have to lug that book along with me on the train.

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