Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 28, 2018

A Final 2018 Reading Note: Finish What You Started?

I heard it just today from a member of my parents’ generation: “Finish what you start.” You may have been admonished with a similar maxim when you were growing up.

For many decades, I rarely set a book aside without finishing it. I considered it my duty, my obligation: finish that book!

DNF

Horse racing aficionados study the past performance charts to determine which horses to wager on. Sometimes the acronym “DNF” indicates a horse “did not finish” a particular race.

I overcame my lifelong compulsion to FINISH and marked three books on my reading list “DNF” this year. I’ll review them in brief, primarily as invitation to you: Do you have a different opinion of any of them? It’s likely I missed something. I welcome your comments.

To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf, 1927

I’ve set out to read all or nearly all of Ms. Woolf’s novels in chronological order. I read a number of them decades ago, primarily in college. I’m a different reader now, with a different perspective on what was happening in English-language literature at the time she wrote them. I began with The Voyage Out (1915) and Mrs. Dalloway (1925), both of which I mentioned in previous summaries of my 2018 reading. Click on the titles to see those articles.

I admire Woolf’s style, her approach to storytelling and her evocation of character. I found those qualities again in Lighthouse, but I didn’t finish. Maybe I simply overextended my Woolvian exposure over a relatively short span. Perhaps there were too many other distractions at the time. I’ll come back to it and try again in 2019.

Has that ever happened to you? — found yourself unable to continue a book, even though it fundamentally appeals to you?

The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante, 2013

This is the second of Ferrante’s four enormously popular “Neapolitan Novels.” I enjoyed the first, My Brilliant Friend. The characters caught my attention and the harrowing descriptions of neighborhood and the culture were arresting.

A third of the way through this book, Ferrante lost me. Maybe I failed to grasp what Ms. Ferrante was doing, perhaps my male perspective limited my ability to empathize with the narrator, Elena, and her brilliant friend, Lila, and their fraught relationship.

I grew weary of the unrelenting dreariness and oppression of their environment, rarely relieved by humor or pleasure of any genuine sort. The dire struggles of the large cast promised never to end, nor did I find any of them worth caring about. Nor was I taken by the writing — although I hasten to admit I was reading the English translation, and perhaps that didn’t resonate with me.

I never found anyone — including the beautiful and forceful Lila — whose future arc beckoned me to continue. Nor was I curious enough to discover how the series would reveal the mystery behind the framing device that opens the series to keep going. I simply didn’t want to know any more about any of those people, most whom were vicious, cruel, corrupt, manipulative or weak and ineffectual.

I’m in a minority on this one. I invite you to enlighten me: What did I miss?

A Question of Upbringing, Anthony Powell, 1951

Marking “DNF” to this first title in Anthony Powell’s massive A Dance to the Music of Time is what prompted me to write today’s blog post. It’s been on my reading list for decades. Finally opening it, I closed it again after trudging through the first 75% of this first of 12 books with little appreciation for or enjoyment of the story, the characters, the narrator or the prose.

It was a surprise — the only surprise the book afforded me. I was finally reading this monumental work that’s commonly listed among the great achievements of 20th century literature, sometimes acclaimed the greatest of all, by an author some have dubbed “the English Proust.”

No one else is Proust, including Powell. I don’t hold that against any writer. There’s only one.

Powell does adopt an approach similar to Proust’s: the steady accumulation of quotidian events which — once they’re all recounted and synthesized — serve as the foundation of the author’s goal, conveyed in memorable language by an insightful narrator.

Everyone knows at least one such example from Proust: the scent and taste of that madeleine dipped in an infusion — one of the most famous scenes in literature. It’s not the event that matters, though — any more than it’s Proust’s tireless documentation of thousands of incidents in his home life, on the boulevards of Paris, in salons and drawing rooms and at balls or on the footpaths by the river near his boyhood home: the point is how Proust welds them into a whole. They all amount to something — something sublime and significant. The result is worth reading more than 1.2 million words to acquire — in my opinion.

Powell does something similar, but his examples are so petty and amount to so little that they’re irritating and — for me — weren’t worth pursuing. Not only did he fail to make them telling details, he did so in unremarkable and — 65 years after he wrote — dated prose.

None of Powell’s characters struck me as compelling or even particularly interesting. Worst of all — in my view — his convoluted and artless sentences sounded stiff, arch, and not at all like something a first-person narrator would say or think. They were contrived, artificial and didn’t resonate. That dance to the music of time became a trudge, then a slog.

I put Mr. Powell aside, and may not pick him up again. What say you? What did I miss? I welcome your comments and will give them fair consideration.

I hope you’ve had a marvelous year of reading, with few DNFs. I wish you great joy with your books of 2019.

© Brad Nixon 2018

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Responses

  1. Over the years, my DNFs probably have outnumbered my Fs, which would give me an F in some courses, but which did have the advantage of freeing up time for re-reads of particularly compelling books.

    I’ve been trying to remember some of those I just couldn’t finish, but it’s hard. If they couldn’t keep me engaged, there’s not much sense in remembering them. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins comes to mind, along with anything by Jane Austen. I know, I know. I keep trying, but when the boredom sets in, I put whichever of her works I have in hand back on the shelf, and swear to try again next year. I used to feel some guilt about it. Eventually, I found some absolution in this wonderful observation from Mark Twain, written in a letter to Joseph Twichell in 1898:

    “I haven’t any right to criticise books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • There in a sentence the boy from Hannibal topped his own “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses. Thanks for that one. I’m with you on Wilkie Collins. My big DNF last year — that surprised me — was “The Wings of the Dove.” I didn’t know I could get so infuriated with Mr. James. Get to the point, Henry! Thank you.

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  2. I am a big proponent of putting a book down after 50-100 pages if it’s not capturing your attention. There are just too many good books out there to not enjoy what you’re reading. Surprisingly, I’ve not read any Ferrante yet, but I’m always hesitant of the multi-book series. I may still try My Brilliant Friend, especially since you enjoyed it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do encourage you to read it. You may not decide to go on. There’s a lot to like, and the dynamic between the two principal female characters is interesting, as are Ms. Ferrante’s descriptions of the culture and the Naples community where they live. Thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m into pretty niche areas related to art and France. Nothing of what I read would qualify as great or highbrow literature. Here’s a sample of a few books I’ve delved into the past few months:

    Impressionists in Giverny
    Renoir and Friends
    Casanova: the Seduction of Europe
    Paul Klee
    Picasso, Blue and Rose
    The Hotel Beauharnais, Paris
    The Extraordinary Hotel Paiva, Paris

    Liked by 1 person

    • As well or better to be deep than wide. Admirable. No wonder I feel like a piker when the talk turns (as is its wont) to art.

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  4. When it came to books, I too was tormented by my parents’ “finish what you start” motto. After becoming a parent myself, I realized that sometimes we have no idea what we’re talking about, so I became somewhat more flexible about throwing books into the DNF pile.

    But I still share your worries, it’s not something to do lightly. My 2018 DNF includes some books where I’m sure I missed the point.

    – Verne

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    • Always a concern, so I trust I’ll go back once I’m more mature, and capable of getting it. I might be running out of decades, though!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Mostly the ‘start what you finish’ from my parents was to do with food not books. They had a room in their house (where I grew up) that was so stuffed full of books that we called it ‘The Library’, and there was a large bookcase outside my sister’s room (and later outside mine) where books she had read resided to be read by me – so the habit started early. However… apart from my younger years, I have a preference for non-fiction as otherwise I find my mind wandering too much. Somehow, factual books hold my attention more. So yes, there have been many books of fiction that I haven’t finished but I still have felt guilty about putting them down before the end.

    The fiction books that I do love, though – I read and re-read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Val, thanks for the comment. I’ve left too many things too late tonight. Back to you tomorrow.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve made a conscious decision in recent years to discipline myself NOT to reread TOO many of my favorites, because there’s only so much time in one life. I’m an inveterate rereader, but there are too many other books I want to read, too. I’m primarily a reader of fiction, but a good book is a good book, period. To judge from your blog posts, you must’ve done a considerable amount of study of the fashion, style and cultural milieu of the Edwardian/Victorian eras to inform your photo manipulation.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ah, I understand. Most of my re-reading is done at certain times of the year – winter, particularly, when I need to distract myself from the cold and lack of light. I read such a huge amount when younger that I think I pretty much wore out my desire to read newer works. But yes – time does rather fold in on itself as one gets older, leaving – or seeming to leave – not enough time for everything.

        Most of my study starts with each photo first, then opens out as I research it.

        Liked by 1 person

      • It’s a fascinating thing you do … with impressive results. And, absolutely: there’s nothing like revisiting a longtime favorite book on a dank dreary day … which, incredibly, it happens to be at this moment in southern California!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks. Maybe it’ll rain? Do you still need rain, there?

        Like

      • We always need rain. The only time we had anything like enough in recent years was winter 2017, which resulted in the massive “super bloom.” That, unfortunately, generated an enormous amount of vegetation which dried out and fueled some significant fires. That’s a natural cycle, and no problemo, unless you happen to’ve built a city nearby.
        Where we actually need the rain/snowfall is up in the Sierras and other ranges, as well as in the Central Valley, where it will provide snowpack, fill reservoirs and replenish the aquifer.
        Here in the Los Angeles basin, rain waters our yards and landscaping for a while, but most of it runs off into the ocean. We don’t count in the large scheme.
        This is more of a treatise than you bargained for, but living here for 25 years has been an education in hydrology, far different than the world I spent the first part of my life in, in the Midwest. Fascinating, daunting.
        Thanks for asking. Didn’t mean to wear out my welcome.

        Liked by 1 person


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