Here’s to Giving up

by jbloodwell

. . . on books you don’t enjoy reading, that is.

For most of the new year, I’d been working on Adam Levin’s mammoth (i.e., 1,030-page) tome The Instructions. And for most of that time, I was waiting for it to go somewhere. Finally, on page 272, I put it aside for a little while. I picked up Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics), have found it to be awesome, and am now reconciling myself to the fact that I probably won’t be going back to The Instructions. It will join Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospitalon my bookshelf as over-long, over-hyped novels, published by McSweeney’s, that I found to be all sizzle and little steak (though in both cases I didn’t/won’t finish, so I should really be less confident about dismissing them; all I can fairly say is that both novels completely lost forward momentum, making their enormous length (700+ pages in the case of The Children’s Hospital) unjustified and thus all the more tedious).

It got me thinking about the ethics of giving up on any book, no matter how little I’m enjoying reading it. I’m sure lots of people are like me in that the thought of giving anything up carries a certain stigma. Even considering giving up on a dull book is a new phenomenon for me. I suspect the stigma of quitting comes from years and years of schooling, when I literally couldn’t have stopped reading something for fear of failing class. But bundled up with that fear is the idea that with any book, no matter how dense and seemingly terrible, if you can just push to the end, there will be something revelatory in the experience of having finished it; that’s very much the implicit promise an English teacher makes when he/she assigns you to read 1984 or Julius Caesar.

But once you recognize a stigma as coming from your years of schooling, it’s fun to celebrate the fact that you’re no longer in school by defying said stigma. I’m going over my list of books read in 2010 (yes, for the first year I kept a list) and realizing that it was a banner year for flaunting my ingrained prejudice against quitting books. I thought I’d share my list of abandoned books (which I also penciled in, mainly so that, if I’d ended up reading like 17 books, I could comfort myself by looking at all the books I also spent time on without finishing), for whatever such information is worth.

(Note: I didn’t hate any of these books; in all cases, I just. Wasn’t. Feeling. It.)

Abandoned Books of 2010:

Trailer Girl and Other Stories by Terese Svoboda

Riding Toward Everywhere by William T. Vollmann (I found Vollmann’s loose, discursive style to be really sloppy, making this book pretty dull. I’d heard lots of tantalizing things about Vollmann and this book seemed like a great marriage of an exciting writer and a topic I was already pretty interested in. But Riding toward Everywhere felt like it went nowhere. [Rimshot])

Absurdistan: A Novel by Gary Shteyngart (I’ll probably make a second attempt on this one someday, as it came highly recommended. I can think of a few novels, like Ian McEwan’s Atonement, that I threw down in a similar attitude of boredom and bafflement only to try again later and come away a big admirer. This time around I made it about 100 pages in without finding any of the funny stuff I’d been told was in this novel.)

Brilliant OrangeThe Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer by David Winner (I requested this from the library during the height of World Cup hysteria and it came in much later. It’s very smart and thorough, but unless you have a good background on Dutch soccer of the 1970s, it’s mainly just a lot of Dutch names. If you do know that stuff, though, I imagine this would be amazing: lots of smart and creative jumps between soccer strategy and things like Dutch art, architecture, and even the unique Dutch perception of space.)

Here Comes Another Lesson: Stories by Stephen O’Connor (I picked this up on the strength of O’Connor’s story “Ziggurat,” which I read a few years ago in The New Yorker. The story doesn’t make much sense, but it’s about a minotaur in a giant labyrinth and it stuck in my memory between the time of my reading it and coming across O’Connor’s book in a library. The other stories also don’t make much sense, and not many of them were as wild or ballsy as “Ziggurat.” I put the book down thinking the cover art might have been the best part of the book.)