Books unread

December 18, 2003

I updated the right side of the blog this morning, extending the list of things I did not finish.

Kieren Healy made a list of the best books he has not read in the last year - things he started but could not complete.

My reading is not so highbrow - I read a lot of genre fiction and a lot of soft history. Like Healy, I am fascinated by the process of unfinished books. Why do we pick something up and then feel no desire to finish it? This is particularly odd for me because I have a strong completeness fetish. Once I get near the end of a book, I WILL finish that sucker. But, for various reasons, the items at the bottom of the right hand list never made it to the red zone. Let me talk about some of the more recent DNF entries.

So why did I put these particular books down?

James Jones Some Came Running. I really like From Here to Eternity I read and enjoyed Thin Red Line, Go to the Widowmaker and his third book his WW2 sequence (I forget the title, but he once again features the sergeant, the cook, and the private, he once again changes their names, and he once again kills Prewitt.) Jones has the odd 1950s Hemingway thing going on. He writes "manly" books, he is concerned with manly questions, his men are bravura, and virile, and violent, and obsess on their mortality even while they challenge it. It can be a compelling mixture. But, I never got past the first 20 pages of SCR. I got far enough to figure out that our hero was a jerk and a drunk, that everyone was posturing in some way or another, and that it is hard to come home again. I felt no compulsion to read farther. The book might be wonderful, but not this month. Back to the library it goes.

Monsters Inc. We were on the waiting list for the DVD from the library for months. It arrived, J and I watched the first few minutes, then we had to put the baby to bed. Last night I watched a little more, hijinks were ensuing, and I got bored. The library wants it back, I will drop it off this morning. I like the Sully character - we are expected to like Sully - but the gorgeous animation was not enough to keep my attention through the plot.

Into the Darkness This is the book that inspired me to write this rant. Harry Turtledove is sometimes a perfectly adequate B-list author. I liked and re-read his sequence about republic-era Romans in an alternate world Byzantium where magic works. I liked and read the prequels he wrote to that world of Videssos. Turtledove did a nice job with what has become a cliche of alternate history and military science fiction. He then found a new genre. I read one sequence in that genre, put down an audiobook in it, and put down this hardback. Turtledove imagines a world-wide military conflict. He writes a very long sequence of vignettes from that conflict. He wraps it in a cover and calls it a novel. The one I read had continuing characters, the two I put down never did repeat a character. I find that just as I figure out who a character is or what is happening, the focus shifts. The overall narrative becomes the war, and while I think that Turtledove is trying to replicate the multitude of indepent actions and decisions that make up a vast social process, I also find that I require a more human narrative. War and Peace is a love story in the middle of a war. Herman Wouk self-consciously repeated Tolstoy's structure in Winds of War. Turtledove rejects Tolstoy's model. Instead of a focus on individual change and exploration, his is a focus on the masses. Instead of change over time within a person he is giving snapshots of a changed society. Despite the close focus on individuals in each vignette, the overall feel of the book is cold, heartless, and modern.

Turtledove may have been trying for that effect - he is a smart guy and he has written over twenty novels in this formula. People must like this effect - you don't publish that many words unless someone is buying. I find that I require more narrative, more humanity, and more complex characters. I spend my days reading the news, reading punditry, and researching the past. I spend my creative energy understanding social changes, describing the mental worlds of the past, and excerpting individual biographies and writings to describe those worlds and their changes to my readers. I read fiction for relaxation and escape. And, to me, a cold modern world full of violence and despair is not relaxing and does not provide an escape.

ps. During the classwork phase of graduate school we did a lot of historiographical writing - summarize the argument and evidence of a book, critique the book. I had a minor reputation for writing savage reviews in my historiography; I had to retrain myself so that I could write useful commentary on student papers. I appear to have let some of that savagery out in my comments on Turtledove. I need to add that despite the apparant randomness of his vignette technique, I think Turtledove has some pretty clever theory behind his books. He is a reasonably smart guy; I just do not care for his work.

Posted by Red Ted at December 18, 2003 08:45 AM | TrackBack