I used to think of myself as a good soldier when it came to sticking it out with a book, even if became dull in spots. I would push through, skim a bit if it got too rough, and often enough I was rewarded for my efforts with a solid ending. But the older I get, the less patience I have with a book that is lacking in captivation (or even worse, in quality storytelling or writing) and I have become comfortable with putting down a book that has lost me within the first 100 pages (my designated "do or die" line in the sand).
And yet, I feel ashamed for quitting on some books, great pieces of literature that have been impactful and important, but sometimes I just can’t keep the ship afloat and it becomes time to scramble for an exit and a sturdy inflatable raft. Here are five classic novels that I wish I finished, that I may yet finish one day, but for now I am ashamed that I quit halfway through.
For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
I’m a big Hemingway fan (Farewell to Arms is masterful and a personal favorite) and I bogged down around page 200 with 300 more pages to go, which is much worse than looking at the last half of Old Man and the Sea (also admittedly dull) and seeing another 50 pages. I understand that the book isn’t just about a young man’s war in Spain, but that it details the heart of Spain and the spirit of those fighting fascism. It’s a deep look at what makes the people tick, interspersed with the brisk preparations for battle that really hooked me in the first 50 pages. But must I know every single word uttered over the three days prior to the battle, every story, every remembrance? Hemingway says yes, because that’s what the book is about, but do I want to trudge onward? No, and I didn't. I wish I did, but I guess I'll have to deal with the shame of going AWOL. I also didn't finish The Sun Also Rises, which I should probably be even more shameful about, but nothing in that book ever hooked me, while this one had me going for a while.
Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
Good god, do I love Bradbury, but good god did I get tired of this one. I really do want to finish it one day and I probably will. It’s far from a “tough read,” but I just became turned off by the idea that every character in this book has the same exact magical understanding of the universe, the same voice, the same perceptions. The average seven-year old has the same wisdom and poetic voice as a forty-year old in this town, and everything feels a bit too transcendentally wondrous for me to take it too seriously. And trust me, my shame is immense. I’ll try again someday.
Anything by William Faulkner
The Faulk always seemed like an author I’d love, a great southern wordsmith with an incredible reputation as a groundbreaking scribe and drinksman. However, I tried reading the opening chapters to three or four of his books (I forget which ones exactly . . . Light in August was one) and failed to get past the first few pages in any of them. I basically equate anything by Faulkner with my experience seeing Terrence Malik’s The Tree of Life. It’s gorgeous, sure, but minute to minute I have no idea what the hell is happening or what it means. Maybe that makes me a dullard—so be it. Faulk isn’t for me.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
I knew about 20 pages in that I wasn’t going to make it up the river. I really wanted to. I really wanted to meet Kurtz . . . but it just kept grinding on me, and grinding on me, and the journey up the river . . . kept . . . bogging . . . down. And for goodness sake, I’m 40 pages in to a 110 page novel and I give up? I should be ashamed. And I am. The horror. The horror.
Visions of Cody by Jack Kerouac
This one hurts me deeply because Jack is my guy, right up there next to Bukowski and Steinbeck and Hunter Thompson as my all-times favorites. But this book (along with Maggie Cassidy, sadly) was like re-taking all my high school math classes back to back to back to back to back, etc., forever. I would read a paragraph (sometimes pages long) and have no idea where I was and go back and re-read it, and still not be sure. Sometimes by the end of a sentence I’d do the same thing. Granted, this was almost eight years ago when I was in my mid-20s, so maybe I wasn’t ready, or maybe I’m not smart enough, or creative enough, or Beat enough, or maybe sometimes Jack just kept writing no matter if it was good or bad but because he had to get the words out and in print and buy another house for his mother and all that On The Road money wasn’t going to last forever. I know it’s not that (completely), because Jack was an ultimate artist, but in the same sense that Jackson Pollack was an ultimate artist. Sometimes the work is genius, and sometimes it’s just paint splattered willy-nilly on a canvas. I’m ashamed to say it, but this one just isn’t a book I’m going to finish. Ever. Alas.
How about you? Any classics that burn you up and down with shame for not finishing?