Thursday, 5 March 2009

'Never read it'. UK's literary lies and failures.

Recently my girlfriend went through a rather extensive charade before handing back an unread novel which a colleague had insisted upon lending to her. After pronouncing the prose so overwrought as to be unreadable, she nevertheless spent the best part of an hour and a half reading synopses of the book’s plot and readers’ commentaries on various websites. Last I heard, she’d returned the volume to its owner, only after declaring her extreme surprise at one of its purportedly unlikely plot twists.

Fair to say that the novel in question is not considered part of literature’s canon. And the embarrassment at abandoning its reading was not the humiliation of intellectual defeat. However, several newspapers this morning (possibly prompted by World Book Day) comment on a survey which suggests many people lie and claim to have finished books which they have not actually read at all.

‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ came top, with 42% of respondents admitting that they had in the past 'misspoke' about reading it. I find that particular result surprising, given that Orwell’s classic is not by any means the longest novel, it is modern and relevant in both its content and its style and frequently children are encouraged to read the book at school. Less perplexing admissions include hefty tomes such as ‘War and Peace’, ‘Ulysses’ and the bible.

Tolstoy’s epic is formidable in its length, but it is thoroughly rewarding. Joyce’s book, I must confess, can be tough going at times. It’s good to have it in the readers’ locker, so to speak, mainly so that one need only dip into favourite sections from time to time. As for the bible, I’ve not even attempted to read it from cover to cover. I dare say most people have a working knowledge of the most notable bits. But, yer man begat so and so who in turn begat another chap and lo he didn’t fire blanks either, would test the patience of all but the most pious saint.

My own literary tenacity has certainly dissipated since my teens and early twenties. Quite frequently I abandon books; even those which I feel have a degree of merit. The sense of shame varies between titles. For instance, even at my most voracious I couldn’t force my way through the unalloyed tedium of Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’.

Lately I seem to have stalled on ‘Blair Unbound’ in favour of the more imaginatively enticing ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’ by Umberto Eco. Clearly I am only posing as a politico. Although I do intend eventually to return to Tony.

It especially pains me to admit, as an enthusiast of Russian history, that I merely skimmed large tracts of Antony Beevor’s ‘Stalingrad’. I can’t help but find detailed military history a bit repetitive. Give me political analysis any day. And I am still appalled with myself because I failed to finish ‘Oblomov’, Goncharov’s important Russian classic. It becomes so much less compelling when the protagonist pulls himself together shakes off his lethargy and gets out of his filthy flat!

Don’t let this airing of dirty literary laundry become a solo exercise. By all means share your abandonments, or never starteds, in the comments zone. Just don’t say that you run out of steam reading my longer posts!

8 comments:

Aidan said...

Nice post, I think that many people will have fib about having seen a film or read a book at some time in their life. I remember saying that I had read "Das Kapital" in argument when I was vout 19 only the guy I was speaking to actually had read it and a lot more so I was found out so I haven't been known to be too liberal with the truth since.
I rarely abandon books as I normally read reviews first anyway so there is a quality filter. The last book I abandoned was an awful book by Iain Banks where he goes tasting whisky all over Scotland, I thought it would be funny but it is more like a very anally retarded treaise on peaty, malt, salty whiskies for whisky bores. I don't even drink it but I like him as a writer, big mistake that one.

Hernandez said...

Moby Dick has been gathering dust on my bookshelf for a number of years. I started Star of the Sea by Joseph O'Connor and made it to page 30 before 'leaving it for a few weeks'. That was 2 years ago. I've never even attempted Ullyses for which I feel slightly guilty.

Hernandez said...

....Ulysses is good though.

Chekov said...

Star of the Sea is vastly overrated. A decent potboiler though.

Chekov said...

And did you know btw that Joseph O'Connor is Sinead's brother?

yourcousin said...

I'm about twenty pages shy of finishing the novel "History", but just can't be bothered to finish it. Maybe at some point I'll knock it out, but then who really cares, I already got the quotes I wanted out of it.

Anonymous said...

I was a chapter away from finishing A Star called Henry but didn't finish it, much to the annoyance of my then girlfriend who recommended it to me. Papillion was never finished despite me thoroughly enjoying the 3/4s that i read. The Constant Gardener was abandoned after chapter 1. Girlfriend in a Coma. The list could go on..Come to think of it i rarely finish books...
Rog

Chekov said...

What you need is a good old Leeds United bashing book, The Damned United. Which incidentally is being made into a film.