Sunday, June 3, 2012

Unfinished classics: books writers leave unread

Ah, the classics. What writer doesn't yearn to create a story of lasting import, prose that survives the ages, novels with ideas that spark a thousand hazy midnight colloquies on college campuses, a masterwork that becomes a part of some esteemed canon of great literature? An author's hope springs eternal. 

Yet many writers themselves don't glean inspiration and guidance from every classic must-read. There are a vast number of books that some writers just can't struggle through, no matter how well-intentioned the effort. Bafflement, disinterest, and just plain boredom can sink in early in their pages, from the endless paragraphs of Don Quixote to the endless day-long wandering of Ulysses. 

The Slate columnist Juliet Lapidos asked a group of writers to name books that, while they may occupy the higher rungs of admired literature, were unlikely to be read, no matter how determined the attempt. Personal preference is subjective, and one reader's Pynchon is another's Salinger; put another way, the list makes it easier to put away that copy of Don Quixote for good and all: no matter how good he finds Quixote at the start, Dwight Garner at the New York Times is asleep by page 37. Here's a sample of other writers and the books that remain, accusing and unfinished, on the shelf:
Amy Bloom, author most recently of Where the God of Love Hangs Out:... Critics and regular (and erudite) people and the three members of the 1974 Pulitzer Prize jury on fiction admire the hell out of this book. (The other 11 members of the board disagreed violently and no fiction prize was given that year.) Gravity's Rainbow did win a National Book Award and it did make Time magazine's list of the All-Time 100 greatest novels. For people who like this sort of thing, as Muriel Spark wrote, this is the sort of thing they like. I prefer Muriel Spark.
Elif Batuman, author of The Possessed: ... Literature is supposed to be beautiful and/or necessary—so if at a given time you don't either enjoy or need a certain book, then you should read something else, and not feel guilty about it. Canonical books I did not enjoy include The Iliad and The Sound and the Fury, and, although I did read Ulysses with some degree of technical interest, it wasn't fun for me. I maintain that this doesn't reflect badly on Homer, Faulkner, Joyce, or me.
 Dwight Garner, book critic for the New York Times: The book I'll reluctantly fire from my canon is Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes. Every five years or so I pick up Walter Starkie's 1957 translation, which my wife has enthusiastically devoured twice, and, struck by Cervantes' lively and multijointed prose, get a bit excited. In the margins I'll write, "He's the world's first great food writer," underlining a passage on Page One in which he goes on about pigeon, tripe, and salted beef and mutton. Genius! Here's the man who popularized the phrase "the proof's in the pudding"! The momentum slowly fades; the blood drains from my face; was that a news alert on my iPhone? I'm asleep on the couch, deeply ashamed but contentedly drooling, by Page 37.
Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review: I feel unfair passing judgment on The Alexandria Quartet, having read only two and a half pages of it. Life, however, is short, and when a narrator starts off by saying, "I have come to this island with a few books and the child—Melissa's child," you know a) it isn't his fault and b) it won't get better.
From Salinger's "whiny" Catcher in the Rye to The Sound and the Fury, writers, without guilt, blissfully pass by the groaning shelves of classics at the used book store -- although as Ms. Batuman notes, "this doesn't reflect badly on Homer, Faulkner, Joyce, or me." For myself, it makes me rest easier at night knowing that I can reserve Gravity's Rainbow for another lifetime and, having read Ulysses after several attempts, I can pass on Finnegans Wake until I'm ready. One of these years, I suppose ...

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