Ah, August. The month in which I attempt to recalibrate my reading to meet the goals I have set for the year. I trim, top and tail, in an effort to remove those books I know I will not be finishing this year. Often it’s on me, sometimes it’s on the book.
Let’s take a look at which books I have determined will not be continuing with me for the remainder of 2021.
Josiah Bancroft – Senlin Ascends
I first read this book in 2019. It was immediately appealing – a natty, well-dressed, demure, soft-spoken young man takes his wife to the Tower of Babel, a strange and wondrous place where magic and mystery intertwine. Within a couple of pages she has vanished and he has to begin his trek up the Tower from its lowest floor. No honeymoon, no pleasure.
The book is fine. I am reminded, in its early areas, of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. I am reminded less of it as the book and series progressed, which is something of a positive and more of a negative. It’s a fine book. The series is well written and interesting, and the creativity on display is engaging. The Tower is very strange place with its own remarkable and odd hierarchies and rules. But the main rub for me, both last time and this time, when I have abandoned it, is that I can’t myself hold on to the central conceit of the series. Thomas Senlin’s wife vanished so quickly that we hardly learn a thing about her. We don’t love her the way Senlin does, and thus the motivating factor fades and fades.
Arkady & Boris Strugatsky – Hard to Be a God
An SF Masterworks series novel. A slog, a slog, a slog. I spent far too long pushing myself through bad prose, unclear characterisation, and vague motivation. Nothing more to say.
Marcel Proust – In Search of Lost Time – Swann’s Way
I have read Proust in its entirety twice through, and deeply, deeply loved it both times. This time, my head wasn’t in the game. I have perhaps read 20 pages each month since the year began, which basically means I haven’t given this book the time or attention it deserves. I’d like for 2022 to solidly read it all once more, but if I am realistic I just don’t have the attention at the moment to attend to Proust and his sentences.
This one is on me. If you’ve never read Proust, please take the time to do so – but prepared to swallow up six months of your life. It’s worth it. It really is. Even just writing about it now makes me want to devote some time, but – no! 2022, friends.
Philip Roth – Sabbath’s Theatre
Every year or so I return to Roth. For me, he was a formative writer of my 20s and I was, for a long time, more than obsessed. I have read most of his published novels five or more times, with some (The Human Stain, American Pastoral, The Humbling, The Ghost Writer) pushing ten times. I love his anger, his outrage, his, to borrow so many critics’ phrase – muscular writing. But I am not as angry as I was when I was in my twenties, and I am not, yet, at an age where so much of my life is looking back at what I have done.
Sabbath’s Theatre straddles both of these major themes which means, for me, right now, in my late 30s, that I don’t really have the patience for his writing. I’ll return to him, I’ll come back, but just as his own 30s as a writer wasn’t particularly great, my 30s as a reader of Roth is lacking.
Wiesław Myśliwski – Stone Upon Stone
Sometimes, I just can’t bring myself to read books about agrarian lifestyles. Extremely, unfairly reductive, but 70 pages in to the novel and that’s all I can see. I’ll set it aside for another day as I trust both the published (Archipelago Books), and the many folks on Twitter who recommended I read it.
Eric Hazan – A People’s History of the French Revolution
Simon Schama or bust.
William H. Gass – The Tunnel
I started this book around the same time as Stone Upon Stone and Proust. Too many big books at once. Too much ambition, too many masterpieces pulling for my attention. I didn’t and haven’t given the novel its due. One day, one day.
Ultimately, the books I am abandoning are a reflection of me as a reader right now, right here. With two small children, I have less time to devote to enormous masterpieces, because it’s possible I will put a book down and not pick it up for weeks or months. And who can do that with The Tunnel or Proust? Nobody. Those books deserve better.
At the moment, I am a man of novellas and sporty books. And fantasy (!). I need something I can finish quickly and well.
I continue to plug away at a few big books. Bolaño’s 2666, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. I just can’t read all of the big books at once. It’s not fair to them, and it certainly isn’t doing me any good.