June 20

From Mo Willems to Thomas Pynchon with Some Pitstops Between

I read constantly. Anything. Everything.

I read for my job – academic articles, nonfiction books, textbooks, literature and lots of student papers in any and all subjects.

I read online – mostly news from the various feeds to which I subscribe: BBC, NPR, ABCNews.

I read to my children – everything from Mo Willems to Jeff Kinney to J.K. Rowling.

Occasionally, I even get to read for my own enjoyment. Between September and May, I usually collect 10-20 books I think would be entertaining. And in the summer I read as many as I can before school starts and I’m back to reading for work.

When I get to choose my own books, I love historical fiction. Caleb Carr’s “The Alienist” and Glen David Gold’s “Carter Beats the Devil” were lots of fun. I also like straight history, though I prefer it on the dark side: “Sex with Kings” by Eleanor Herman (2005) was fascinating.

Comedy and satire are great for the summer as well. The amazing Carrie Fisher has written two disturbingly funny autobiographies – “Wishful Drinking” and “Shockaholic” that I highly recommend. Jon Stewart’s “America: The Book,” Stephen Colbert’s “I Am America and So Can You,” and all the late, great George Carlin’s books made me laugh out loud.

And I’m not one of those literary snobs who turns up their noses at popular fiction. I’ve read some Stephen King, some Anne Rice, and some John Grisham. And my guiltiest pleasure (don’t tell the PhD’s in my literature department!) is Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels, all of which are hilarious.

Reading is my life.

So the first time, I picked up a book and simply couldn’t get through it, I felt like a failure.

The book was “The Bridges of Madison County.” A sorority sister had recommended it, let me borrow it, and she was all aglow about how wonderful it was.

I forced my way through the first chapter. It was awful. I put it away for a few days. Tried again. Still terrible. The plot was okay. The characters were mildly interesting, but the style was so overblown and romanticized, I felt like gagging. I gave up, read a synopsis of it so I could report back to my sorority sister, and returned the book to her. I don’t remember much about the story.

The experience of having to abandon a book, however, left an indelible impression. I was in my early 20’s, and I’d never given up on a book before. The very idea of doing so seemed like heresy. I’d grown up in a house full of great books, so I’d never really even considered that some books just weren’t that great.

It happened again about two years later. I was dating a guy who was really into fantasy fiction, and he was aghast that I hadn’t read “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. I’d read “The Hobbit,” and it had been alright, so I picked up “The Fellowship of the Ring.”

I couldn’t get through it.

It reminded me of William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” which I’d had to read for a college course, full of so many characters with their own backstories and quests and missions, I needed a chart to keep them all straight. And all the characters’ names started with “A” and ended in “N.” Honestly! There are 26 letters in our alphabet, Dr. Tolkein! Couldn’t you have used some of the rest of them? And I didn’t even have any markers, any recognizable landmarks I could employ to keep all these characters, places and histories straight because it was ALL make-believe.

I got about a third of the way through before I threw the book across the room. (I think another “A—n” character had just been introduced.) The guy dumped me about two weeks later.

Then there was “The Crying of Lot 49.” I was in grad school and a little embarrassed by my ignorance of 20th-century American literature. I shamefacedly asked my advisor for some recommendations, so I could do some outside reading and catch up to my peers in my cohort. He quickly jotted down some names: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Vonnegut, and Pynchon. I powered my way through a couple of each author’s works and came to the conclusion that I was born in the wrong country. (I much prefer British fiction to American, in general.) Then I picked up Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49.”


I hated every character in the first half of that novel. Maybe there was a redeemable human being in the second half, but I’ll never know. I sold it in a garage sale for a quarter.
Many years later, I ran into “Twilight.” Everyone was raving about this series being the “next step from ‘Harry Potter.'” I’d loved the Harry Potters, and I did a lot of graduate work on “Dracula.” Vampires were right up my alley.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe in glittery vampires. Not that I ever got that far in the book. (I only know Meyer’s vampires glitter because Twilight film fans say so.) Nope, her writing style was what turned me off. If she’d been in one of my composition courses, I’m not sure she would even have earned a C.

And then there was “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” I wanted to like this book. It’s dark. It’s mysterious. It’s weird. The guy who wrote it seems like an amazing man. But it suffers a combination of Lord of the Rings and Thomas Pynchon problems. I can’t keep the characters straight, and I don’t really care if I do. Maybe it’s the English translation, but it feels so aloof, distant, cold and well, boring. I got through three chapters. It’s been sitting there with it’s mocking bookmark for about 6 months now. I might try again.

For me, the worst sin an author can commit is to be self-absorbed, self-important, self-centered. And in different ways, each of these books is the result of that that sin. Some authors commit it through style: “I’m such an amazing writer – just look what I can do with the WORDS! Oh, you can’t follow them? Well, that’s your problem! Stupid reader.”

Some commit it through overkill: “Look at all the fantastical, complicated characters, places and mythologies I can invent! No, I will NOT provide you with any means of anchoring them and keeping them all straight. Stupid reader.”

And some, especially in post-modern American literature, commit it through character development: “I’m going to create all these broken, soulless, irreparable characters to illustrate how ruined our modern society truly is. What? You can’t identify with them? You’re not supposed to! You’re just supposed to appreciate my amazing work, and I don’t care if you don’t care what happens to the characters. If you don’t want to invest time in my brilliant output, then you’re stupid, reader.”

It’s a fine line. I’ve written novels. I don’t presume to be anywhere near Tolkein or Pynchon or Larsson. But I am an excellent reader. I know other writers who have done very similar things and done them better. Tolkein could learn a thing or thirty from J.K. Rowling. (And Meyer, read some Anne Rice, for God’s sake!)

And yet, these abandoned books haunt me. I may have to go look at “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Just one more time.

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Posted June 20, 2012 by jpmahoney49 in category Academic Intellectual Erudition, Popular Culture