Friday, March 5, 2010

More of my interview with Julia Keller/Chicago Tribune

The great thing about the internets, as our last president liked to call them, is that nothing need be left on the cutting room floor. To wit: I recently had the pleasure of exchanging emails with Pulitzer Prize journalist Julia Keller (author of Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel) for a column she was writing for her newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, about "when to give up on a book."

JK: Is there a novel you've started but not finished, but that still haunts you? (Your web site talks about White Noise. Any others?)

BS: Sure. There are great novels that I've been unable to defeat. Ulysses is one of them. A friend of mine used to call his attempts to finish Ulysses "assaults" on the novel. And you really do have to gird your loins and prepare for a battle with that particular book. I've enjoyed trying to read Ulysses and would never consider my time spent with it in the least bit wasted. And of course I'm sympathetic to the arguments of the folks who have finished it and loved it. But I am, sorry to say, not among those lucky few. Maybe someday?

I'm sure there's a Faulkner in there that I never finished. I read a lot of him in graduate school! It's not a novel, but I have one more chapter to read in Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari. I'm not sure why I stopped reading it and I'm fairly certain I'll return to it, god willing and if the creek don't rise, as Hank Sr. used to say.

JK: How long do you go before giving up? Is there a rule of thumb?

BS: In all four of these questions, Julia, I would divide the books into two categories: those books we feel that will benefit and enrich us and are worth finishing no matter the degree of difficulty (books such as Buddenbrooks or Lord Jim or Moby-Dick); and all the other, lesser books we're just taking a flyer on.

It's easier to walk away from the latter than from the former. I don't think we should ever walk away from a book merely because it's challenging. That's the wrong reason. On the other hand, certain books simply don't command our respect. Recently I went looking for books that might satisfy a couple of urges I have as a reader: for epic fantasy and for novels of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars. I'd read Tolkien in the first genre and Patrick O'Brian in the second and considered them the gold standard. I settled on Lord Foul's Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson for my epic fantasy and, to be honest with you, I'm not sure I'm going to make it through the trilogy. The lead character, Thomas Covenant, keeps saying, Hellfire!, which I find bizarre and distracting. Donaldson's writing is often atrocious. So many anachronisms, so many poorly chosen words, so much silliness like Hellfire! The story has my attention through 200 pages, so maybe I'll finish this novel and reconsider the final two in the series? In the seafaring genre, I picked up the first novel in the "Ramage" series by Dudley Pope. I walked away from that at about 100 pages because I simply couldn't get excited to pick the book back up again after I'd set it aside. That was three months ago, so I think I'm done with it.

One question I find fascinating is, Why don't we finish a book? There have been times when I wasn't in the mood for a book that I would months or even years later return to and love. So our moods can determine the outcome. At other times, an author will break (in our mind) the compact that exists between all authors and their readers. Perhaps we will have said once too often, Are you kidding me? And we'll decide we no longer want to suspend our disbelief. Or perhaps the author abuses the English language in ways we find intolerable. Or perhaps a tic (say, cuteness) that is at first bearable becomes a reason to set a book aside.

An old friend of mine once rolled down the passenger-side window of my car and threw one of Nabokov's novels out at 70 mph on the interstate! "Sometimes," he said, "deciding not to finish a book calls for a grand gesture." We still laugh about that today!

Perhaps I should have prefaced these responses by saying that I finished every book I ever started, good, bad or indifferent, until I was 26 years old. In my old age, I find it so much easier to let a book go than in my youth. (Not sure this has anything to do with our discussion, but in my dotage I have begun for the first time in my life to reread my favorite books, something I thought I'd never do but find I enjoy it immensely.)

JK: What's the earliest you've ever quit on a book? (e.g., first page? first paragraph?) What's the furtherest you've gone, and then quit?

BS: The earliest I ever quit on a book was Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, which I stopped reading on Page 3. I could tell then, despite all the hype, that it was the work of a consumate hack. Reading those first few pages reminded me of a line Dorothy Parker wrote in a review from the 1920s: "This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force."
I wish I'd written that line myself! I've certainly read enough books over the years to which it could be applied! Let's just say The Da Vinci Code was a better book than a movie and leave it at that!

As for the book I read most deeply into before giving up, I guess it's Don DeLillo's Underworld, somewhere in the 600s of an 827 page novel! So close, and yet I was so overwhelmed reading it by ennui that to go on was insupportable. I really don't have any regrets for leaving Underworld behind and no intention of going back to it.

JK: Must one finish a book to derive all the meat from it?
BS: I don't think so. At least, not if it's a good book. The best novelists aren't going to give us the answers to life in the final chapter or in the Epilogue, I don't think. My favorite novelists ask the best questions; they don't give the best answers. So I think you can accumulate meat as you move through a book even if you never make it to the end. But what, you ask, about a detective novel? Well, then, yes, one must read on til the end to find out whodunnit. The key in the case of crime fiction or novels with O. Henry-style endings, etc., is to not allow yourself to be sucked in in the first place.

1 comment:

  1. Nice interview. I should have given up earlier on the Da Vinci Code--one of the worst books I ever read.