Annoying Books I

Until a while ago I felt the compulsion to finish every book I started reading. And so I did. But somehow, these days, I think that is a waste of time. Surely, some books need a while to pick up the pace, but there are so many books that I can read and I won’t ever be able to read all the books I want to read. Why waste my time with a book that I don’t enjoy?

This development was a slow one. Especially when I was younger I felt an immense pressure to read ALL THE BOOKS. At that age I went to the library twice a week – Monday and Friday – and always left with a massive pile of books. Reading ALL THE BOOKS seemed like an achievable goal at the time and I was making good progress. Soon after I had read all the books in the children’s section that interested me and I started visiting other libraries in the area in order to widen the selection of reading material.

Then something happened. It wasn’t conscious but suddenly I felt the pressure to read books that other people liked. Still I did not even start reading them, but it felt more like I was putting off doing it until some day than like making a decision to just not read them. A massive amount of reader’s guilt has piled up ever since. Who cares if I will never read the Lord of the Rings or the final Harry Potters or God knows what. I just don’t care much for fantasy, however good it might be. Deal with it (this is mainly a command to myself).

After having set this straight, I can finally get to my actual point. Some books are just annoying. I like the idea and/or concept of them and I want to read them but they are just so annoying. I’ve encountered a fair few of them and here I will introduce you to the first two of them:

As part of my “Around The World Challenge” I vowed to read Paulo Coelho’s ‘The Pilgrimage’ to cover Europe. My vague interest in the camino got me excited about a work of fiction featuring it. When I started reading it, however, this enthusiasm soon died away. I can’t name exactly what it was – the overtly spiritual theme or the narrative style itself – but I knew that reading this book would be a long cruel journey. So I abandoned it. I deleted it from my ebook reader and moved on. Look at me, so grown up. Oh, and I found an even better book to replace its spot in my challenge: The Diary of Anne Frank!

Now all good. The second book is a little more complicated. It is Dan Kieran’s “The Art of Slow Travel”. There is no challenge to reading this book and I don’t dread it half as much as “The Pilgrimage”, but it does annoy me massively. It is the style. It is a style that is quite peculiar and somehow it is common among those around and including Tom Hodginson. I love the idea of idleness and celebrating it and slow travel and I would love to read about it, but not this way. Somehow it makes me picture them as the most self-centered, ignorant, arrogant people alive. I’m sure that these are false accusations, but their writing cannot convey it to me. Also, I love books centered exclusively around the author, so… But I want to read this damn book so I will. I’ll let you know once I’ve made it.

So anyway, enough complaining for now. Gotta leave some for the rest of the week, innit?

B x

The Orgastic Future That Year By Year Recedes Before Us

It was by accident that I had never read The Great Gatsby. Half a decade ago, an obsession about this book seemed to take hold of my closest friends, but bypassed me for some strange reason, and then again a few years later, other friends were hit by the wave (they were studying it in English Lit) and at around the same time a new film adaption of it came to and went from the cinemas.

That I have not seen this film is another small wonder. After all, it had all a film needs to lure me into the red velvety seats: Some famous director (Stephen Spielberg? No?), Leo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan and Kanye West and all my friends raved on about it. I can’t actually remember the exact reason why I did not see it, but I suspect that it was an accumulation of factors (no money, all my friends had already seen it, had to study or at least pretend to do so, or really anything along those lines).

I finally did it now. Read the book that is, not watch the film. Usually when I read so-called “classics” that I have heard so much about before even opening the book, I have a repertoire of three possible reactions:

  1. I love it.
  2. I don’t love it. This can mean both indifference and a proper dislike.
  3. I love it but still close the book with a disappointed impression.

Gatsby was the latter. Most people will agree with me that there are some undeniably brilliant qualities to this work: I mean, just how it is written. Fitzgerald generally has a way of being ridiculously quotable, but he’s definitely grown beyond himself in Gatsby. And it’s not even the main plot that makes you think “this is so true”, but the detailed descriptions. Take the descriptions of the first of Gatsby’s parties that our narrator attends. Even though this is a posh, sophisticated party set about a century ago, there are so many parallels to parties I’ve been to (that were improvised, featured cheap liquor and 90s music), or maybe just universal truths. Here are my five favourite quotes from that passage:

The bar is in full swing and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside until the air is alive with chatter and laughter and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names.

“(…) I’ve been drunk for a week now, and I thought it might sober me up to sit in a library.”

I had taken two finger bowls of champagne and the scene had changed before my eyes into something significant, elemental and profound.

“And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.”

I was alone and it was almost two.

But then, marvelling at all this brilliance, as mentioned before, I was also stuck by some disappointment. There’s really only so much praise that a book of 50 000 words can sustain. The hype, the myth about this book as long outgrown it’s physical presence, the ink on the pages. This, of course, I can only judge from my point of view, which, in this case, is that of a leisurely reader. From the point of a scholar, or even just a year nine studying this book in class, I can only suspect how amass of literary devices and quirks the work is.

Here, as a way to end perhaps, is the quote that I think sums up the book best (back in my days of literary analysis and interpretation, oh boy, the amount of meaning I could have read into this one sentence…):

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…

B x (this post was part of an “Around the World Reading Challenge” I’m doing. Read all about it here!)

That One Particular Hardback

Taste is a peculiar thing. Let me just say this and then launch into my anecdote:

When I was about 13 or 14 years old, I grabbed a book in one of those sales tables. I bought this book, although I instantly disliked it. It was a proper book, bound in a fabric-y cover and all of that, which was probably the only reason I had for disliking it the moment I bought it (I’m devoted to paperbacks, you should know). Other reasons surfaced later: The reader’s guilt it gave me by just sitting on my shelf was one and also the fact that it was a translation. Translations themselves don’t bother me much, although of course it is never the same as reading the original and blah blah, but this one had a really clumsily translated title. I can’t remember the title as such, but I remember looking at the original title on one of the first pages on the left, you know – where they have the copyrights and first published and all that -, thinking ‘Oh dear’. Clearly, both the English-language author and publisher had thought to market the book as classy literature – a cryptic title, existential themes; somehow, German publishers did not. You know when you can tell by title’s font what kind of readers they want to attract? Well, these people clearly wanted leisurely readers without high expectations or knowledge of literature as an art form or academic pursuit.

After about half a year, I read this book. It was a short book and I finished it quickly – this was still at the time when I finished every book I started, out of principle (a habit that is incredibly hard to overcome, my struggles continue). There’s not much I can say to you about this book, except that there must have been a rather solitary male character at the centre of the narrative, and the only other thing I can remember is the description of a residential road in minute detail. Of course, it has been years. But nonetheless, still today I can feel the impression that I had just read a truly bad book like a bitter taste in my mouth (this analogy or whatever they call it did not work out, soz for that).

Now, (I’ll finally get on to my point, sorry again for the delay) imagine my astonishment when I turned the page (onto the ‘About the author’ section) to find out that this guy had won the Nobel Prize for Literature! I have no yet decided whether I will tell you the name of this writer, I feel it might be better not to.

Right in that moment, part of me decided that one should not trust in prizes ever again. It was a natural reaction, a reflex almost. I had just aged about three years in that one quick moment. Books where my life then, my sole purpose. Not as a writer, but as a reader. But I was young. I knew nothing and I knew that. ‘Great literature’ was something I respected, looked up to, and I trusted in time and prizes (Nobel, Pulitzer, Man Booker) to reveal what would be good literature, and what would be trivia. This judgement did not impact my choice of books, I read them both regardless, but I read them differently.

But there was also that other part of me that did not come to this conclusion. Instead of losing total trust in those literary institutions, I lost a little bit of trust in my own judgement. Clearly, this was great literature and there was something wrong with me that I could not appreciate it.

Maybe I should add some context: Although I might have been young, I knew what a good book was. I also knew what a bad book was. I had many examples for both. By this point, I had even read War & Peace from cover to cover (I had enjoyed it, although I did not pronounce it my favourite book of all times – I found the war bits to be too lengthy but interesting; and the peace bits entertaining but too dull). Books had made me cry and laugh and despair at times. I had developed an acquired taste, I knew what I wanted in a book: I wanted it to make me think, at least, and feel something (really, anything!), at best. By this time I had accepted that some of the books I enjoyed most were not necessarily enjoyable to read, although I still did not find faults in books that were enjoyable.

If you now ask me the more significant of those two reactions to this one particular book moment, I would definitely argue it is the second one. We lose faith in institutions and external beliefs all the time, whether it is the concept of Santa being real or the effectiveness of our government or whether we finally realise we will never need most of what we learned in school. This is normal. It is healthy, even. It prompts change, improvement. The other sentiment is less beneficial. Losing confidence in yourself is no small matter, and its consequences can be catastrophic.

So please, please have faith in your taste. You can only ever like the things you like. And regardless of what you yourself and others might tell you (including me!!): Your taste is just as valuable as anyone else’s. NO ONE HAS ‘SUPERIOR TASTE’. And if you think about it, concepts like ‘good taste’ and ‘bad taste’ are cultural constructs and don’t even exist. There’s only ‘your taste’ and ‘his taste’ and ‘her taste’ (and, of course, ‘my taste’, which is the best of them all!) – even an ‘our taste’ and ‘their taste’ cannot truly describe anything real.

B x

P.S. You might have noticed I have decided not to reveal the author’s name, cheeky me.