My difficult books

I was fascinated by Bloglily’s post on difficult books, books she doesn’t finish because they just weren’t working for her. I’m going to steal her idea and talk about my own examples. She’s talking about books that she puts aside not because they are bad — an entirely separate category, I imagine, with its own list — but because she’s not ready for them for one reason or another. As an obsessive book-finisher, I don’t give up on many books, preferring to struggle on and suffer until the bitter end. But occasionally it happens, and then it rankles a bit. I feel challenged. I may have lost that round, but I’m coming back, one day when I’m stronger.

Bloglily mentions Henry James’s novel The Ambassadors, which is top on my list of unfinished books. I tried this book a few years ago, and just couldn’t for the life of me figure out what was going on. I looked around for some help on the internet and found a little bit, but I got annoyed that I needed a plot summary to keep going, and couldn’t get it on my own, and I said forget it. I did make it through The Wings of the Dove, another late James novel, with much sweat and perserverance, so I think I can get The Ambassadors; I just need the right conditions — a fairly calm, quiet, unstressful couple of weeks during which I can spend the time to get a handle on the story. Maybe, also, I need to learn something about reading slowly and about living with a little uncertainty. Maybe Proust will help me with that stuff.

More common for me, however, are those books that I’ve read twice, and come to like the second time around, when the first time I didn’t. Something about those books brought me back again, even after an initial bad response. Pale Fire is a good example; I had to read the book for a college class, and it left me kind of cold. I re-read it a few years later, and changed my mind entirely. There was something about the language of that novel, the excitement and intensity of the commentary that came after the opening poem, the playfulness of it all that I just couldn’t appreciate the first time, and came to love the second. I needed to learn something about the pleasures of experimentation with form and language, I think.

I had a similar experience with Don Delillo’s White Noise, which also left me cold at first. I’m not sure why I read it again, except perhaps because so many people loved it that I wondered what I had missed. When I re-read it, I finally got it — the humor and the social satire. Maybe I needed to learn how to read the type of book that doesn’t necessarily work to create emotionally-vibrant, psychologically-realistic characters of the sort I’m usually drawn to. I needed to learn how to read and appreciate satire. I think that’s true about me — I don’t always respond well to satire, preferring warmer, intimate reads that take me into the heart of a character rather than books that focus on the failings of people and of society from a more exterior point of view.

Thinking along these lines, maybe I should read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann once again. I read it a year or two ago, and found it okay in places, downright boring in others. I’m guessing this is because of a flaw in me and not in the book. Maybe if I take another look at it again a few years from now, I’ll find its highly philosophical meanderings and its very slow pace intriguing and absorbing.

At any rate, many thanks to Bloglily for writing a thought-provoking post. I like the idea of giving certain novels a second chance — and giving myself one too.

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