28 October 2022

Unfinished Business

NYC Wanderer (Kevin Eng), CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

  I generally try to finish a book when I start it. I abandoned a few during lockdown because I was locked down and didn't want to waste my time. Also, I'm usually rewarded for my efforts. But in 2022, I've ditched two: One classic, and one I'd hoped would give me insight into our increasingly narcissistic society. 

Portrait of a Lady - Henry James

This is one I read from a list of classics compiled by Harold Bloom. I had a love-hate relationship with Bloom's work. He could be full of himself, sounding like a self-appointed arbiter of what is "good" literature. I had a high school English teacher who did that, and I don't have fond memories of her.

But Bloom's How to Read, as in deep reading, is a worthwhile volume. Bloom reins in his pompous tendencies and offers up lists of poetry, drama, and novels he believes everyone should read. These are not his version of the Western Canon. 

For the most part, I've enjoyed every book so far on the list. I had to do Crime and Punishment on audio because Russian novels really don't translate well into English. This explained to me by one actual Russian and another person fluent in the language. I skipped Proust's In Search of Lost Time, mainly due to length. I want to read it someday, but when my schedule is not so pressed. And I want to reread The Magic Mountain when I can go more slowly.

And then we come to Henry James's Portrait of a Lady. I'd like to say I bailed too soon on it, but he starts off doing his own literary criticism. Now, if I post my own review of Holland Bay, Amazon is going to not only ban me from their service, they'll pull every book I have on the site, much to the chagrin of three publishers, all too small to afford the damage that would do. But he's Henry James.

I skipped the self-indulgent essay. Stephen King encourages you to do the same to him and has taken to putting the author notes at the end of his work. 

Then we get into the story. It's a bunch of Victorian bankers chatting about how superior they are. It goes on for about twenty-five pages. I took the book back to the library. But wait! I did Crime and Punishment on Audible. Maybe that would help.

Nope. I hated the book for much the same reasons I never liked Bonfire of the Vanities. I don't like any of the characters, and I don't care about the problems of rich people. 

"Wait. Doesn't your scifi series feature a trillionaire's son and a royal?"

Yes, but the son hated the gilded cage and ended up becoming a soldier. The royal hates her job and doesn't hide the fact. They're more Harry than Charles.

Well, I wasn't going to like all of them. 

Selfie - William Stohr

I had high hopes for this one. It started off well enough, with a look at Eastern and ancient views of "self." 

Aaaand then we get a chapter on suspect seventies psychotherapy fad that still exists, a muddled theory that - because humans moods and motivations shift and a section of the brain drives impulsiveness - humans have no free will and are not a single entity, and a whiny self-indulgent passage about the author's neuroses. 

I can read Philip Roth for that, and I like reading Roth's work. My wife saw me reading and said, "You don't look happy." I wasn't. The book went back to the library after I'd only read a third of it. After I dropped it off, I thought about it. Did I give it a fair chance?

The recommendation came from a friend's Goodreads page. I'd picked some interesting books from his shevles: Ohio: A Novel, Lincoln Highway, Don't Know Tough, and Under Color of Law. Some of his nonfiction picks were quite good, especially those around music. So, this was a safe pick, right? I just got impatient?

It's not even on his shelf.

It's odd. When I start a book, I feel committed to finish it. It's why I switched from print to audio on Crime and Punishment. But Portrait of a Lady wasn't just heavy - So was The Human Stain and The Magic Mountain. - it was tedious. Audio didn't make it any better. Or maybe Twain and Hemingway have spoiled me (along with Washington Irving.) But then I skipped Melville's intro to Moby Dick and jumped into the story. The episodic nature of it made the story easy to follow.

Maybe I'm too invested in crime or science fiction, but I'm also plowing through the canon of Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and William Shakespeare. So, no, that's not it. I love history. I love contradictory history. Jennifer Paxton, a professor of medieval studies, has a vastly different view of English history, especially the Anglo-Saxons, than Mark Morris. Yet I get a lot out of their work. Joseph M. Marshall III, a Lakota historian (and not a bad audio reader) is saying some uncomfortable things about the European incursion into indigenous territory. And to be honest, I can't wait to hear what he says next.


  1. Jim, don't feel guilty. After a lifetime of obsessive reading, I've decided that life is too short to read something that is either tedious, unlikeable, or BS.

    BTW, I am recommending to everyone the recently released non-fiction history: Andrzej Bobkowski, "Wartime Notebooks: France, 1949-1944". He and his wife were Polish emigres to France, and spent the war in Paris, and his observations are breathtaking. Witty, scathing, sarcastic, lyrical at times, and a view that could only come from a stranger, looking in as a society is occupied by a ruthless enemy. I read it (despite its length) obsessively, night after night. Fantastic. So glad I bought that one.

  2. I agree with abandoning a book when it isn't reaching you. This can be mood, of course. If the author is clearly good but the story isn't clicking, I may come back to it in a few days. Sometimes, this helps (re)discover great stuff. But if I can't connect twice, I'm not the right reader for the work.


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