Friday, January 18, 2008

Books you know you should read, but can't get into

It's the topic we book lovers avoid discussing, the thing we like to keep secret: books we know we should read, but just can't get into.

You know what I'm talking about: that award-winning, critically acclaimed book that everyone's talking about. The one you pick up to read, struggle through for 50 pages or so, and look longingly at the next title waiting on your to-read pile.

You want to read it. You want to enjoy it. You want to be able to talk to your friends about it. But every time you try to get going, it's like exercising. You have to concentrate and it's hard work.

I used to push through the pain and force myself to finish those books. Now, I figure life's too short, there are too many other books to read. So I give myself 50 pages, and if I'm not hooked by then, it's all over.

(A librarian friend tells me the number of pages you should give yourself to like a book should reduce the older you get.)

Of course all this has been leading up to a confession. I couldn't get into The Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. The great Pulitzer Prize-winning novel published 10 years after the author committed suicide.

I really wanted to like this book, and I persevered longer than I usually would because it was loaned to me by a friend. And I know exactly why I couldn't get into it: the story's protagonist is the most obnoxious character I've ever read. I had no sympathy for him, and truly couldn't give a crap what happens to him through the story (particularly when I learned he undergoes no redemptive process whatsoever).

In fact, there were no sympathetic characters at all, leaving me very little interest in what happened to anyone.

Now, clearly, this sort of characterisation and intentional lack of redemption is a powerful way to tell a story and make a point, but apparently it doesn't necessarily engage me as a reader (and yet, I don't have the same issues with stories told on the screen - eg, Napoleon Dynamite, a movie I love).

In looking for the cover artwork to put with this post, I came across more reviews raving about this novel, and have had a fresh bout of literary guilt (promising myself I will attempt it again one day). Maybe my mistake was trying to make it holiday reading, when it clearly is not…

Am I the only one afflicted by such struggles?


Bec said...

Well, I don't even struggle anymore. I have made some sort of peace with the fact that I just love happy stories. The funnier and happier the better! And most critically acclaimed books tend not to fall into that category.

And I gotta say, what was not to love about Napolean Dynamite? Maybe the many quotable quotes made up for the fact that Napolean was not so likeable...but I dunno, I somehow liked him????? And of course, every time Matt comes back from mountain biking, I have to ask him "so, did you take it off any sweet jumps?"...he he he, cracks me up every time :P

the ink-stained toe-poker said...

I'm no looking to spoil stuff here but your argument for chucking it is weak. Weak as watery tea. (I was gonnae say pish.)

Everyone else in the book finds redemption, salvation or reward in some way or another, Ignacius on the other hand deserves nothing. Nothing better anyways. But he is no less amazin' for it.

The book can be uplifting if you're looking for it. Good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people, but not always... and so the world goes...

Yes he is horrible, but I love him. (Kinda). Not the way misguided people love Seinfeld or the way Heath once loved Jake on a mountain. Ignacius isn't even really loveable. But he's an unbelievable character and one worth sticking with, if at least just for the experience. ...Dunces is a very funny book. And I believe you do yourself a disservice.

Still there are far too many good books too read and oh so little time to read them.

Which is why I'm no sure I've enough time to read eel people stories...

Paula Weston said...

At last, my favourite literary snob emerges from the darkness...

I'm suitably chastised, and will again let the guilt gnaw away at me until it gets too much and I have to wrestle with Ignatius again (I must confess, you do make a compelling case...). It has to get in line behind a lot of other books though, and next time, I won't borrow your copy, so you'll never know if I fail again!

PS: Love the moniker.

the ink-stained toe-poker said...

I'l give ye literary snob... Just cause I'll no read any auld nonsense, I'm a literary snob? let me tell you, I've read some pish in my time. So it's no a matter of snobbery, I'd say more discernment. Burnt fingers and the like.

And rest assured I will know you've read it cause you will seek me out when you've completed whosever copy you borrowed and go - you were right my friend.

You'll probably even be thinking I should have read that book years ago.

But I'll no say nothing. I will smile and nod.

And as for guilt, that's something we put on ourselves. A habit fed to us through some form of judeo-christianity or another.

So don't let it gnaw. It's only a book and there are many more to read.

...ah well...