Tuesday, April 25, 2006

What Do You Call This?

I have this annoying problem. I start reading a book. Usually I like it. But sometimes I don't. Sometimes I'm bored stiff. And the annoying problem is this: I have to finish every book I start, regardless of whether it moves me, challenges me, or puts me to sleep. On the positive side, it shows a dogged perseverence that I exhibit in virtually no other area of my life. Is something too hard? Give it up. Take a nap. Play a video game and shoot aliens or Nazis. But on the negative side, this is a form of idiocy. Who willfully chooses an experience whose emotional reward is roughly equivalent to a trip to the dentist? And who keeps going back, again and again and again?

Recently I forced my way through a collection of Henry James' novels -- to be specific, Daisy Miller, Washington Square, The Bostonians, The Ambassadors, Portrait of a Lady, and The Aspern Papers. They were all collected into one massive, 1,200 page volume full of tiny print. I'm told that Henry James is a great novelist. And maybe that's what kept me going; the idea that, like castor oil, this stuff didn't taste good, but it was supposed to be good for me. But it wasn't good for me. Henry never met a five-syllable word he didn't like. And I got thoroughly weary of the whole ordeal. I wanted to flog Henry James and his erudite, run-on sentences, sic Chuck Norris on him and have Chuck kick Henry's sorry literary butt. The guy is a crashing bore. He needed to be kidnapped from the literary salon and sent on a Secret-Ops mission with Chuck or Steven Seagal.

But I dutifully read every word. I do the same thing with the Bible. There are the occasional rough patches. I read something like, "from the tribe of Naphtali, 26,000 men." and I can see that every sentence for the next three pages conforms to the pattern, "from the tribe of x, y number of men." Do I skip ahead? Nope. I read every blasted tribe name, every blasted number.

What is wrong with me? What do you call this? And how do you cure it?


woodsmeister said...

Henry James is vastly overrated. I was forced to read James in both undergrad and grad school and hated it. Washington Square is particularly pointless, and Portrait of a Lady is just mean-spirited and awful.

Give me Dickens or Swift or Austen any day. Heck, I'd rather read War and Peace or Crime and Punishment again than subject myself to more Henry James.

KarlandBethany said...

It must be your penance for not liking the national anthem.


Anonymous said...

I do that with books, too. I can only recall one book that I refused to finish, and I only had about 20 pages left. I kept thinking it was going somewhere, and for me it never did. I got so irritated that I refused to finish it, merely on principle.

I wish I hadn't finished One Hundred Years of Solitude. That was torture.

I don't do it with the Bible. I skip the generational stuff, because I know I won't remember it anyway. :)

- patti

Anonymous said...

Hmmm...I seem to be somewhere in the middle. I usually finish books I start, but if I can't get into it, I accept that it's the wrong book to read right now, and set it aside. If it's a truly good book, it'll draw me back--even if that is years down the road.

Christopher Morley has a great quote about that sort of thing in The Haunted Bookshop:

"Did you ever notice how books track you down and hunt you out? They follow you like the hound in Francis Thompson's poem. They know their quarry!.... It's one of the uncanniest things I know to watch a real book on its career- it follows you and follows you and drives you into a corner and MAKES you read it."

The exception to ultimately finishing the books I start is books that aren't well written or well thought out, and those I neither finish nor start again later.

Haven't read much of Henry James, just The Turn of the Screw, but I didn't especially care for it. I used to read authors because they were significant, but I gave that up. I read what catches my interest now. :)