Hello, hallo, hullo. Good morrow to you.
I’m here listening to some Pink Floyd, and it has put me in a very mellow mood indeed. Life seems great (despite my rapidly advancing age – see yesterday’s blog!) and all sorts of frivolities are flipping about in my cavernous skull. Today, I’m thinking about reading, and how you know whether you’ll like a book or not. Do you judge its cover (despite all the warnings against it!) or is it the ‘blurb’ that attracts you to a story? Have you ever made any serious errors of judgement in your reading life? How far into a book do you have to be before you’d consider writing it off as a lost cause, or are you the type of reader who will doggedly persist no matter how poor the doggerel you’re slogging through, a sort of ‘finish or perish’ mentality?
I’m not wondering this because of anything I’ve read recently – in fact, it’s been a long, long time since I came across a book I just couldn’t force myself to finish. Many years ago, I boasted, filled with the hubris of youth, that I *never* left a book unread if I started it. A friend promptly challenged me to read L. Ron Hubbard’s ‘Dianetics’; I think I may have reached page 4 before my brain started to mount a rebellion against my eyes, and I had to shut the thing and fling it as far from me as possible. Since then, there have been some others that didn’t make it much further than the starting blocks – another friend asked if I could possibly read ‘Mein Kampf’ (the answer is, of course, ‘no’, though I did give it a go, albeit briefly). Also, there are some classics which I just couldn’t manage – one of them is ‘Middlemarch’, about which I’ve had some impassioned arguments over the years. I don’t care what anyone says – Casaubon is a character that should just never have existed, end of story. I read the beginning of ‘Middlemarch’, and the last 50 pages or so, leaving about 80% of it unread, and still managed to write a passable essay on it while at university. This is less a statement of my own intellectual prowess as it is an indictment of the Irish higher education system, but I digress.
In recent years, I started ‘Wolf Hall’ but didn’t manage to finish it (though I do intend to go back to it as soon as I can clear enough space in my head – so, probably not till the New Year); I also started Nicola Barker’s ‘Darkmans’, which I really liked, but just wasn’t able to get my head around. I think my bookmark sits forlornly at about page 140, where it has remained for about three years. I intend to chivvy it along one of these days, and finish the book, but for whatever reason, I just haven’t been able to manage it. A recent book which I came this close to finishing, but for some reason didn’t, was ‘Embassytown’ (China Mieville); it’s a work of genius, but at the time I tried to read it I didn’t have the opportunity to devote my unbroken, full attention to it. I was trying to snatch ten pages here, fifteen pages there – and I really think it’s a book which just doesn’t respond well to that sort of treatment. I wasn’t able to really engage with it properly, and it creates such a rich imaginative world that you really need to be able to immerse yourself in it. However, I did get to within twenty pages of the end before I gave up. I fully intend finishing it, and probably sooner rather than later.
One thing these books all have in common is wonderful covers, and enticing blurbs. I think I’m a bit of a fiend for a good book cover. An intriguing author photo helps too, sometimes. I usually end up being drawn to books with a focus on history (particularly medieval or ‘early modern’, or whatever it is they’re calling the Renaissance nowadays), or perhaps with a supernatural/folklore-ish flavour, and of course I can’t help but indulge myself when I pass near the SF/Fantasy shelves – you can’t really beat SF/Fantasy books for excellent cover art. I think my love of a good book jacket is another reason why I just can’t warm to e-readers; it’s just not the same when all you’re looking at is pixels on a screen. Sometimes, though, I do feel short-changed when a blurb, a beautiful cover, or even reviews, lead me to believe a book is going to be life-changingly brilliant, and it turns out not to be the case. A recent example was ‘1Q84’, by the normally mind-bogglingly amazing Haruki Murakami. For months in advance of publication, I’d read reviews which told of this book becoming an instant bestseller in Japan; it had sold a million copies before it had even been printed. Advance reviews promised wonderful things. As well as that, I’ve savoured so many of his past works that I was practically foaming at the mouth to get my hands on ‘1Q84’ – such was my ardour that I couldn’t even wait for Books 1 & 2 (published together) to become available in paperback. I had to have the hardback, and I left it for ages on my bookshelf, like a treat to myself. I even bought the hardback Book 3, so they’d look pretty together on the shelf.
Well, they do look pretty. But…
I just don’t know. Perhaps it was the anticipation, or perhaps it was the fact that I usually love his work and was fully primed to love this, too. Maybe it was the fact that I adored Book 1 and thought Book 2 was reasonably good, but by the time it came to Book 3, and I realised I had hundreds of pages of drawn-out, samey story to trudge through before the wholly unsatisfactory ending, that I felt my enthusiasm for it had been sucked right out of me. There are characters in the books called Little People, for instance, who are supposed to be evil, threatening and spooky – but to an Irish reader, all that ‘Little People’ conjurs up is bad old movies about leprechauns, and folklore about fairies. I just couldn’t get behind them as the source of all horror, or whatever it is Murakami intended them to be. After the ten millionth time they’re mentioned, I just wanted to eat the book rather than finish it, but I persevered. I’m glad I did, but I really don’t know if I’d recommend it to anyone else. It was a lesson, perhaps, not to be sucked in completely by a beautiful cover and great reviews. Normally, of course, you can rely on your past experience of an author – in this case, I didn’t feel it was so clear cut. ‘1Q84’ definitely was not up to the standard of a Murakami masterwork like ‘Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World’, which is a book I’d recommend to anyone who’s willing to let logic fly out the window and who’s looking for a mind-expanding read.
So. Are there any hard book lessons you’ve learned? Anything you’ve read that you’d rather have left unfinished, or anything you wish you could’ve finished but haven’t yet managed to, for whatever reason? And what is the all-important hook, the thing you just can’t resist, when it comes time to make a book purchase?
Do tell. I’m all ears.