Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Books from Hell

 id=The Book from Hell. We all have one - at least I believe that we all do - and I have enough of them to stock a mid-sized bookmobile. And I consider myself a reasonably well-read and a not unintelligent individual. But it's possible - just possible - that I'm working my way to removing one from that curséd list, although I hesitate to speak too precipitously. Things happen.

The Book from Hell (BfH) is the book that you simply cannot finish. At least on the first attempt. And usually on the second attempt too. Or quite possibly not at all. The BfH may be a lightweight crap book but, more likely than not, it's some weighty (literally or figuratively) tome of a book, a much-lauded classic if you will. Many readers are loath to admit to having a BfH and will willingly lie through their prevaricating teeth rather than admit that A Clockwork Orange was monkey poo. Or anything by Lawrence Durrell.

My second such
BfH (note how I cleverly confound the chronology) was Vanity Fair. I knew that I should read it and I tried. I tried twice. Somehow the knowledge that I should be enjoying it whilst I read it did little to ensure my success. Finally, in the grips of a particularly virulent cold a number of years ago - housebound, doped up, and (consequently) only two-thirds cognisant of my surroundings - I essayed Thackeray yet again. And, dear reader, I was victorious. Ultimately it's a book that screams for a heavy-handed editor with a very sharp pencil. Or a reader with a lot of cold drugs. Did I really give a rat's ass about any of the characters or the denouement of the storyline? Not really. Has finishing it enhanced my quality of life in some way? Not at all.

Then came Lempriere's Dictionary - the most opprobrious piece of dreck sitting on my BfH bookshelf. Its notoriety is twofold. Firstly, it was a ponderous novel (with a plot dense enough to rival Günter Grass' The Flounder, another BfH) with pretentions of being quite good. Alas, it missed the mark. Secondly, every time I tried to read Lempriere's Dictionary, for I kept putting it down, my now ex-paramour Satan, in some queer fit of dyslexia in which the words monogamy and monotony were often confused, felt compelled - spurned on by the devilish book no doubt - to acquire a new & improved girlfriend. After this happened three times, I gave him and the book up. I used to blame the book, and a very small part of me still does. But long after Satan and I parted company, and taking the precaution of being single at the time, I picked it up again and finished it. It sucked right to the end.

The lone survival mechanism, a last resort really, that the most mulish of readers - those who refuse to be done in by a BfH, like me - employ is skimming. There has yet to be
a book written that I cannot finish, but that's only because I unabashedly skim if needs must. I skimmed through Shantaram and as I flipped past pages, my otherwise unoccupied mind kept wondering what super-massive black hole Roberts' editor had fallen through, imprisoned still with his editor's pencil in hand. In fact, last week when I finished Damascus Gate, I responded to Señor Gato Gringo's question - did you like it? - with a fair and accurate assessment: I hardly skimmed it at all.

So why all this nattering on about Books from Hell? Because, dear reader, I have recently repaired to a BfH from my early years - a book that I had to verily blow the dust from in order to wade through its pages. And being in Spain it behooved me to try. I refer to none other than Don Quixote, my very first BfH. Yes, for th
e past few weeks I've been lugging its 982 pages of poetry & prose and 39 pages of endnotes around the city, raising the eyebrows of my students and fellow subway commuters. Raising eyebrows because everybody that I've spoken to admits, rather shamefacedly, to never having read it. Or having read it in the Spanish equivalent of Prince Valiant comics.

But it's a classic. no? Not just a classic but a Spanish classic. Not just one of the most influential books of the Spanish literary canon but one that influenced the development of western prose. Not reading Don Quixote is like, well, not
 id=reading Vanity Fair. But I understand. It's a tad cumbersome what with its gazillion love sonnets and reoccurring 20-page digressions on the duties and responsibilities of a knight errant. I know, I tried to read it before when I was 17-years old - perhaps not the best age to engage in 16th century picaresque farces. So I'm at it again. And I like it. And yes, I've skimmed (primarily the gazillion love sonnets and the reoccurring 20-page digressions on the duties and responsibilities of a knight errant) and will probably may continue to skim here and there. That black hole must have an interesting assortment of editors.

So dear reader, do not be ashamed if you have a BfH - or even a bookmobile of B'sfH. We all have them, even those who would deny it (did I just hear a cock crow 3 times?). Of course, my luck, when I'm finally stranded on that much-talked of mythical island where I can only have 10 books to read until death or rescue - and the Entire Works of William Shakespeare doesn't count as one selection - I'll probably wash ashore along with a crate full of B'sfH.

Week One: Atlas Shrugged.


p.s. Have a BfH? Do share.


trevor said...

In my experience reading DQ on the metro is seen as a bit like reading the safety instructions: it's something you're meant to have got to know by some vague process not including contact, and the person observing at you will do absolutely anything to avoid getting drawn into a conversation as to its contents, even should you want to undertake something so foolish.

trevor said...

Current BfH: Dialectología española, anything by Montalbán

Di Mackey said...

Glassbead Game, Herman Hesse.

I liked his other stuff but struggled and struggled with that one ... unfinished it is.

squindia said...

Fountainhead is much better than Atlas Shrugged. Atlas was a BfH in high school for me.

Don Q is great. I didn't enjoy it much however since my professor in college gave us 1 week to read it. Thats right, 1 freaking week!

I've been meaning to read Shantaram, everyone and their daughter has read it in this country and raves about it...makes me suspicious.

I don't currently have a BfH but I do have a PfH (portfolio from hell) that I need to finish once and for all. sigh.

La Gatita Gringa said...

Loved your analogy Trevor to the safety instructions. Wandering Woman: the Glassbead Game was one of my BfH although I did finish it. You're missing nothing. Squindia: One week?? Yeesh! As for Shantaram: there are 3 really excellent segments in the book - a book with about 14 segments. Skim away and marvel at his total recall of 3-page tracts of direct dialogue.

Me and my camera said...

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad. Twice I tried, twice I failed.

Anonymous said...

Shogun by James Clavell. Saw the mini-series on Television, couldn't finisn the book. I tried 3 times.

Annabellie said...

The Joseph Conrad thing must be genetic, because mine is Heart of Darkness, which I KNOW is a brilliant book, and I appreciate certain passages of it, but it's just too dense for me. I feel like a failure! Mind you, I haven't attempted it since I was 19, so maybe it's time for another crack...

Di Mackey said...

Thanks ... I kept thinking 'I'll read it when I'm a little more grown up and intelligent'. I see there is no need now. I can rest.

Ibn Kafka said...

Funny, I read Don Quijote in a stretch, even on the metro (in Stockholm though), and adored it. One obvious contender for the title should however be Robert Musil's "The man without qualities" - see here http://www.blog.ma/obiterdicta/index.php?Retour_sur__L_homme_sans_qualites_.html&id_article=10347 . Its first few pages are among the best in world literature, but I'd need at least one year's total isolation to finish it. Another one I tried, and I'm very reluctant of not finishing books I've begun, is Malcolm Lowry's "Under the volcano" - I simply couldn't do it, but tend not to blame my insufficient intellect as with Musil, but rather Lowry's lack of talent.

La Gatita Gringa said...

I managed to finish "Under the Volcano" after several aborted efforts. Apparently the manuscript was nearly lost in a fire. Too bad it was recovered.