I have a hard time letting myself stop reading a book once I’ve started. I always have faith that even though something starts off difficult or boring or bad it might suddenly shift gears, making insane sense out of what had before just seemed tedious as hell. There’s also a part of me that likes to be able to effectively talk shit about something I don’t like once it’s over, if sometimes only in my mind. If you know exactly why a thing sucked, that can actually help you figure out what sucks in general. I think a lot of people give up on things that don’t immediately please them, mistaking the bland appetizer for the main course. Sometimes the thing even changes you, which isn’t possible when you only seek out stuff that corresponds exactly to your tastes.
That said, sometimes you have to accept that what you’re dealing with is never going to come together. Sometimes in the first ten pages of a book you realize, Jesus Christ, I want to kill this book. Or you get three-fourths of the way through and see it’s never going to change, that what you find boring or dead about it is actually just that—you can’t stand it any longer, you want to forget it even exists.
For the last 13 years I’ve kept a list of every book I’ve read, including those I’ve tried to read and found I couldn’t bear. Below is a trail of little black holes among the mess of words I’ve crammed into my brain.
A Confederacy Of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
In theory, I can’t imagine not loving a novel about an obese 30-something recluse who lives with his mom and spends his time masturbating and talking shit, but I couldn’t get through this one. I remember finding the first 20 pages or so funny, bizarre, and at least scatological enough to spur me forward, but very quickly the jokes began to get repetitive, the same note banging in the protagonist’s brain. (For the record, can I just say I fucking hate the concept of “characters”? Why does American entertainment lean so hard on characters? Pretty sure there are enough people in the world already without having to spend time getting to know some bored typist’s imaginary friends.) The longer the book continued on, the more quickly it felt like every chapter was saying exactly the same thing—the same dick jokes and endless ranting, manipulating the setup over and over again for an increasingly monotone effect. As likeable as Ignatius Reilly might be in the first ten minutes, he quickly becomes annoying as fuck.
Literary science fiction is reliably the biggest let down of my reading life. For a genre built around the idea that anything is possible, where the veils of realism and human relations are allowed to be lifted, most science fiction books read like super-inflated soap operas played out during a war on a space station. Isn’t science fiction supposed to deal in things that were previously unimaginable? With a title like Cryptomicon, I was super excited for this book to fall somewhere between Borges and black metal hackers worshipping Satan, but once again it was more like watered down William Vollmann. I read this on a car trip on which I had nothing else to read, so I had no choice but to keep going. I think I made it about one-third of the way through before I started turning pages in sets of fives, then sets of 20s, eventually kind of just skimming to see if I could figure out what happened with the unbelievably infeasible plot before I put it down and sacrificed my attention to whatever my family was listening to on the radio. As for Neuromancer—I’d rather play Skyrim.
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
Like many other things by Pynchon, I started and stopped reading Gravity’s Rainbow many, many times. I love long novels, and I love being challenged to fight through them at certain points almost against my will. If it’s all too easy, I turn brain-dead. But there also must be something dragging underneath—a brutal balance, I know. I think I gave up on Pynchon’s masterpiece around page 50 the first time I gave it a try, coming back months later to begin again, newly determined, only to fail only slightly further in. Then, as an undergrad, I took a class where the novel was assigned and found how around page 300, if you’re still there, the book really opens up. It’s like a gift to the steadfast, suddenly building off of everything that seemed like only mortar fire before. I think I was the only person in the class who actually read it all. Years later, I look back on the novel as one of my favorite reading experiences ever, one that changed the way I think about what plot and language can do together when wielded by a totally brilliant insane hermit.
Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov
I bought Pnin, I think, because I thought I should, or something. I was about to go to grad school for writing, and for some reason I ended up at the bookstore with a handful of things that seemed like things I should have already read, as if when I pulled up on campus there’d be an investigator waiting for me, ready to interrogate me on my knowledge of Russian literature. I think I made it one-third of the way through Pnin before I realized I didn’t like it, it didn’t matter if I continued, life is too short. Whereas with Pynchon I felt like continuing against my will would give me something, nothing in Pnin seemed alive.
Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan
Pulphead actually pisses me the fuck off. Not being engrossed with a book is one thing, but actually hating—hating—what something does is another. This one received an onslaught of glowing reviews when it was released, calling Sullivan the second coming of David Foster Wallace, in so many words. Me being a buttface, I had to find out for myself what all the hype was about. I honestly wanted it to be what others had claimed it was. I try to approach anything, no matter how much it might seem like something I don’t like, with an eye open to the possibility that it could be what I never expected. And yet in all the ways that Wallace’s essays shined, Sullivan just kind of paced, bumbled around. The author seemed more interesting in the idea of what he was writing than what was being said—like he was trying to say, see, I can do anything. But he just didn’t have the chops. There’s an essay in there on “The Miz,” from MTV’s The Real World, and later the WWE, following his adventures as a marketing tool via post-reality-TV stardom, and yet every observation seems half-baked, a shallow trough around a dolled up premise. Each essay made me more angry than the last, and I was totally confused as to how such an uninspiring array could be called anything like the next great whatever. Finally, about halfway through, I got so mad I think I gave the book away to a friend, promising, “Read this book. You’ll hate it.” I think he liked it a lot.
A brief list of other books I’ve given up on:
A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley
How To Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen
Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter
Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre
You Are Not A Stranger Here by Adam Haslett
Oh the Glory of It All by Sean Wilsey
The World Made Straight by Ron Rash
Meeting Evil by Thomas Berger
Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross
The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster
Fear of Music by Jonathan Lethem
Previously by Blake Butler - Reviews of Churches That Won't Stop Growing