Giving up on unreadable muck


100 Years of Solitude Another thing we don't talk about much when it comes to books and reading is how almost all readers finally arrive at one crucial and telling moment, one that changes their reading styles forever after — that instant when you realise you aren't going to finish the book you are diligently ploughing through, and you don't have to finish it, and you can fling it off the porch with a sigh of relief.

Such a fling does not mean you are an ignoramus, and in fact a book's unfinishability reflects less on the reader than on the writer, even on such otherwise excellent writers as, for example, James Joyce, whose Dubliners is taut and perfect and whose Finnegan's Wake is, let us admit cheerfully here in public, unreadable muck.

Almost every reader achieves this moment of maturity, it seems to me, and it is a remarkably freeing line to step over — to finally give up on reading all of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and realise happily that now you have years more to live, or, after two volumes of Marcel Proust, to say politely, 'Marcel, you are a wheezing neurotic nut, and I wish you the best, but I'd like to read books where things actually happen', or even to say to the genius Henry James, 'Hank, old pup, your infinitesimal gradations of social manners are incredibly boring, and reading your denser novels is like being drilled by a very slow dentist.' Isn't that a refreshing feeling?

There are, of course, many books in which slogging pays off wonderfully — Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, say, or Tolstoy's War and Peace, both of which demand maybe a hundred pages of patient muddling before they explode into such vast tremendous stories that you are, at the end, loath to leave their extraordinary worlds.

And there are many books, such as Cervantes' Don Quixote or Melville's Moby-Dick, that are so huge and sprawling and labyrinthine that you are as pleasantly addled at the end as you were at the beginning, which is perhaps why you reread them with joy every few summers.

And there are books that are hard to read but riveting and unforgettable, and it would have been a real shame not to have played in their intense game, books like Annie Dillard's For the Time Being, or Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom, or Tim Winton's Cloudstreet, or David Malouf's Remembering Babylon.

I know only two people who still obsessively finish every book they begin, and in both cases I suspect they are the sort of people who organise the socks in their drawers by color and manufacturer and country of origin, but I believe most readers are like me, and we pick up books so as to be grabbed, startled, snagged, riveted, knocked out, nailed, moved, amazed, absorbed, drawn irresistibly into a tale and a world and a tribe of characters who are completely and utterly real, within the first 50 pages or so, at most a hundred.

But after that, if you find your interest and energy flagging, and the page grows too heavy to turn, and the book sits dusty on the night-table, and your attitude has quietly morphed into maybe I'll finish that when I have the flu, then the book is, let's face it, doomed.

The best thing about not finishing books you do not wish to read anymore is the way it frees you to read books you do want to read but have not read yet, and books you stumble across, and books that are pressed upon you by cousins and other charlatans, and books on other people's night-stands, and books in the waiting rooms of very slow dentists, and books mentioned in the bibliographies of books you loved, and books lauded in book reviews, and books touted by prospective lovers, and books with shameless vulgar irresistible covers beaming at you from bookstores, and books you find in the basement that you were supposed to read in college but didn't, and books newly translated into your first language, and books discovered after the death of an author whose other books you admired, and books your kids are supposed to read for school but leave carelessly around the house, which is a mistake on their part, for that is how one of my sons did not read Jack London's White Fang but I did, which led me happily back to The Sea-Wolf, which led me to other salty American writers, including finally the great testy genius Henry Louis Mencken, but even Henry, great as he was, could not keep me at The American Language, which is said to be a total deathless classic but was so moaningly boring that after 30 pages I slammed it shut and grabbed a beer and a son and ran to the sea, the story from whence all stories come.

Brian DoyleBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of Thirsty for the Joy: Australian & American Voices.

Topic tags: brian doyle, reading, books, james joyce, henry james, gabriel garcia marquez, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn



submit a comment

Existing comments

At last, an American academic who does not coo and rave over Joyce! The Irish have more sense than to waste good drinking time reading Finnegans Wake - and please note the absence of apostrophe: we are after all, talking about Joyce. Well done, Doyler.
Frank O'Shea | 09 July 2008

Thanks for this article, Brian. Now I know that I'm not the only one who put down Du cote de chez Swan after reading 10 pages, never to take it up again. The same with War & Peace. And I know why I managed to finish Dostoesky's the Idiot, most of Dickens and Bulgakov's the Master & Margarita. The easiest & most enjoyable books, at this moment, are the stories of Louise Penny! I don't know I'm reading them! Have a good reading day!
Nathalie | 09 July 2008

Nathalie, War and Peace? Say it isn't so. Okay, perhaps one can skip Tolstoy's reflections on the nature of history at the end of the novel itself, but the rest of it ...

Anyway, Mr Doyle, I do agree with you: it is liberating to say, 'Be gone, fiendish book from hell, I'll go back to my Douglas Adams' and the same liberating feeling applies to non-fiction. Anyone who has, in despair, thrown a book by the philospher Levinas across the room will know exactly what I'm talking about.
Cameron Johns | 09 July 2008

Thank you for an article which expresses so well what led me to this "moment of maturity" only a few years ago, after many years of feeling a kind of guilt if I did not finish a book!
Maryrose Dennehy | 09 July 2008

Just loved Brian Doyle's liberating essay. Now I've got permission to give up on A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, which I have been heavily ploughing through. I know I've still got to work on Brothers Karamazov though.
Brendan Byrne, SJ | 09 July 2008

Thank you Frank: Finnegans Wake apostropheless please!

Once through and page by page for the last few years never did any harm to me, in fact its encyclopaedic nature opened many facets, including some knowledge of the Jesuits.

Proust, twice. But I was long term unemployed for the second innings with time on my hands and a taste for the irony of that status compared to that of the French society of Proust's day.

OK, Yeats's A Vision beat me - but one day!
Ross | 09 July 2008

One gets more intolerant and impatient as one grows older (especially post the 3-score years and ten), and more inclined to return to old favourites with an improved appreciation of the authors' skills!
Jenneth Sasse | 09 July 2008

A veteran writer interviewed on Radio National had a formula whereby with each decade of experience the reader can decide sooner whether to continue a book. By her age, she said you should be able to "judge a book by its cover".
Danny Rose | 10 July 2008

I feel guilty about not finishing books. One I didn't finish was the massive History of India that my grandparents had and I used to read as a child when I went to their farm for holidays. There were four volumes, and the first three were exactly 400 pages; one volume ends with a hyphen, and the rest of that word begins the next volume. I acquired it when grandpa died, and I might go back to it sometime.
Gavan | 11 July 2008


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up