“Did you know when you go
It’s the perfect ending”
Sheryl Crow, My Favorite Mistake
“My Favorite Mistake” is the title of my list of books I thought would be great, but couldn’t finish, or even start.
I’m not bored with writing blurbs and reviews, but do they really tell as much about my reading life as the couch potato drama that is my Coffee Table Stack or the labor of love between the covers of my Nightstand Stack? Aren’t the eye-crossingly soporific failures just as revelatory of my intellectual struggles as the PMBs (Post Modern Bricks) and Victorian classics I’ve triumphantly crossed off my bucket list? Sure, it’s a bit of an obscure question, but that’s why we have obscure blogs. Onward-
Reasons for not finishing, or not starting, a book:
Readability: An ex-girlfriend once got me an academic critical study of Thomas Pynchon’s novels, because she knew I loved ( and repeatedly read) them. Though I’d read many Pynchon exegeses before, I put it down quickly as it was clotted with post modern jargon and elliptical syntax.
By the same token, I admit I recently put down a book on post modernism’s misuse of higher mathematical principles because I really didn’t understand academic postmodernism’s basic concepts, not to mention those of higher mathematics. That was the point of the book, of course, I GET THAT, but obviously didn’t get it. I was not well read enough to understand why PoMo philosophy is often unreadable. I got a few sentences into the first, struggled through a chapter of the second.
I kept the first book, though, because she wrote a nice note in it. I occasionally pull it out, in case something clicks, but inevitably the first sentence I pick out to read is a clotted mess. Although challenging oneself is clearly a good thing sometimes, I think it’s very healthy to read stuff that appeals to us, for whatever reason.
Shove me in the shallow water: The Enlightenment and the Book, by Richard B. Sher seemed, despite its fussy academic aspirations, to offer perspective on the Age of Reason. Cultural histories are an exciting genre, and getting my history of ideas through a history of publishing excites my nerdy, bookish little mind to no end, at least in the abstract. But I probably needed a bit more basic explication on the Scottish Enlightenment itself and a little less on the effects of quarto and octavo editions on the marketing of Locke’s ideas. Got through a chapter, I think.
This differs from The Novel: A Biography, whose oblique evaluations of ancient books I (mostly) hadn’t read I loved so much I snatched up a used copy to keep at home and refer to, and have actually referred to. I finally got through Part One of Don Quixote, and read all of Mill on the Floss (rather than Dickens), because of Novel.
Book not what was expected:
A Traveler’s Guide to the Restoration, I’ve forgotten the bloody author’s name: This just happens to be the tome I was reading when the idea for this post occurred to me. It looked like one of those day-to-day, street-level cultural histories that can breathe air into heavily historicized and romanticized eras (in this case, England’s return to monarchy after the beheading of Charles I, and the ensuing Puritan Interregnum).
But it could have used a bit more historicization. We get precious little on Charles II and James II and VII (really, isn’t a king with TWO succession numbers worth a bit of historicization!?), and quite a lot on the prices paid for each of the 17 or so meat dishes included in the typical upper middle class Sunday meal.
Plus, he really does sporadically attempt t0 maintain its awkward conceit of being an actual travel guide, thus killing its potential appeal as traditional history/cultural history hybrid, which is what I wanted. I cherry picked a few of the more interesting chapters, then sort of slid it into my bag of returned books one Sunday afternoon. So I can’t really tell you why I didn’t finish this book, because I never really finished not finishing it.
Book Duplicative: The Best Non Required Reading, 2017, Sarah Vowell editor: It’s an impeccable anthology, and I think most would agree there’s no shame in not reading every morsel of an anthology, even one edited by the irrepressible Sarah Vowell. It includes short fiction and essays, and I impulsively grabbed it during a binge of short fiction and essay reading from a stack I’d squirreled away against those dreaded, and mostly imaginary, moments when I tell myself there is NOTHING TO READ.
Currently, those include a stack of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concerns I scoop up for $5 everytime one appears at my favorite used bookstore, a George Saunders collection, Denis Johnson’s newest and a Fitzgerald collection. There are a couple of essay collections, too, and I pretty sure I’ll die alone.
Secondly, the non-fiction in the collection mostly concerns, unsurprisingly, Trump, and I regulate my intake carefully. ‘Read rage’ is painful and counter productive, however worthy. Trump will be hammered by any and all thoughtful writers in the next two decades, then relegated to the end of the presidential shelf, with Millard Fillmore and Warren G. Harding. It’s an irony how many trees will die for this anti-environmentalist thug.
I did read Ta-Nahesi Coates’ My President Was Black, and a couple of great stories. It’s recommended, if you don’t mind recommendations from anthology-grazers.
Bus/train reading, not on bus/train: Superficial perhaps, but a book of a certain size, optimal chapter length and expendability, I will often put in my kit bag for the ride to work. I really loved Adam Gopnik’s essay on comics and high art in High Low, where he bravely and convincingly documented R.Crumb’s influence on Phillip Guston, so when I saw At the Strangers Gate on the freebie advance reading pile at work I speculatively picked it up.
I soon happened across a review in the NYT somewhat dismissive of this memoir of life in 80‘s and 90‘s New York because nothing bad ever really happens to him. It’s true that Stranger reads like a history of white liberal entitlement at times, but it turns out that Gopnik can make almost anything, including copyediting fashion magazines, seem interesting and culturally significant. But the book never really left my book bag when I got home.
I actually began the ‘Reading List’ portion of this blog in homage to Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree, published originally in Believer Magazine then collected into a tidy little (kit bag-sized) paperback that yo-yo’ed up and down the E-Line with me and was titteringly ingested in perfect little DU-to-Union Station’-sized bites. Part of the appeal of Hornby’s blurbs are his admissions of when a book just isn’t for him, like losing a lover: some one had to make that call, but you’ll always wonder what might have been in the next chapter.
Call of Duty: I had long ago read a euro comics version of DeSade’s Justine, and when I saw a thick Collected Works at the library it seemed superficial to base my whole impression of this very influential writer on that, so I read a couple of introductory essays and some Dialogues and Philosophy in The Bedroom.
Then I was done. I’m pretty sure I’ve read more DeSade than most who presume to judge him, and I understand why he’s influential- doesn’t Raskolnikov later pose the same moral questions, albeit with his ax, as DeSade does with his dick? And what does that say about us that we avoid such an influential writer because of anal sex?
But how much lecturing on the libertarian fantasy should we have to subject ourselves to before we decide that its absolutist seductions are not morally defensible and thus not possible? And shouldn’t fantasy, whether sexual or political, contain some small kernel of possibility? Or philosophy, less self indulgence and more rigor? I’ve crossed it off my bucket list and installed it on my ‘rhymes-with-bucket list’. When I need to get up someone’s ass, reading-wise, it’ll probably be some actual porn, rather than bedroom philosophy.
Finishing books is a positive character trait, I believe. But so is admitting when you’ve made a mistake. Life is short and procrastination is the mind’s way of telling you there are better things to be done with your time. I’m certain that my list of mistakes will grow. But I should stop here and try to finish a book, or at least start one.