Thursday, April 16, 2009

Century Clubs and Beetle Gazing

now reading: Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

When I used to have time to read a lot of books, especially when I worked at Borders and would start books for a million different reasons including being asked to read them by other people for quasi-professional reasons (e.g. getting more free books from the publishers' marketing reps), I needed to come up with a way to give a book a fair shake before throwing it across the room. Yes, it is wonderful and fabulous when a book hooks you on from the first page, but then again, heroin hooks you from the first "page," too, doesn't it? And we see how well that turns out. Perhaps an acquired taste (coffee, beer, marijuana) can be better or at least less destructive.

There is also the sheer length of some books to consider. Do you really know on page ten of Moby Dick what you are going to ultimately think about it? Let alone War and Peace or Infinite Jest. You might already like them or dislike them at that point, but you cannot yet fully understand/appreciate them. At such a fraction of the whole I would be uncomfortable rejecting a book. And we cannot forget either books such as The Corrections. That book starts out weird, and I've had quite a few people tell me they started it and "couldn't get into it" or some such thing. But the first -- I forget how many, twenty? thirty? more? -- pages are in fact "weird" but there is a REASON and it is so genius and I might add part of the point of that magnificent book. Like, part of the point so much that I can't explain why it has to start that way without ruining something for you when you read it. I sometimes wonder if some asshats on the Pulitzer committee that year "couldn't get into it" and that's why they mistakenly awarded the Pulitzer to Empire Falls instead?

But how much is enough of a chance to give a book I hate? I eventually settled on the 100 pages rule. If, after a hundred pages, I really do not like the book and can see no redeeming qualities in it and truly do not want to waste my life finishing it, then I am allowed to throw it across the room. Most recently I did this with Alice Sebold's second novel, The Almost Moon, or, as I prefer to think of it, The Almost Book Worth Reading. I actually got further than 100 pages with that one, but it just kept getting worse, actually. Note that the completion of 100 pages is a necessary but not sufficient requirement. There may be other overriding reasons that compel me to finish a book or for which I will consider going on after 100 pages. Most recently this happened with The Puttermesser Papers, because I had unfortunately and terribly misguidedly chosen Cynthia Ozick for my 'O' author in my A-to-Z Literary Blog Project and so it was Too Late. UGH.

The point is that because of my 100 pages rule, I have decided that 100 pages is also a good time point at which to reflect on what I think of the book I'm reading here on the blog. And it just so happens that yesterday I got to page 100 in Fathers and Sons.

I am reading it quickly -- but it goes quickly. It also REALLY makes me want to learn Russian, because as is generally the case when I read Russian authors, I am so aware I am reading a translation. That was the less the case with War and Peace than others, because I guess in order to publish a translation of War and Peace you do have to be damn good, but even then there were moments. It's just bound to happen because of the patronymics and the way the language is used differently to talk to different people and such. I totally think learning Russian is going to be one of my first post-law school projects.

So in Fathers and Sons we've got Arkadii and his good friend Bazarov -- or is he such a good friend? -- hanging out at Arkadii's father's country estate. Bazarov is basically telling all the old guys, like the father and uncle, that they are outdated and have no idea what's up with the philosophical and political realities of the day. Bazarov is a nihilist, and Arkadii is trying to be a nihilist to be as cool as his friend, and the father and uncle are a mix of baffled and annoyed by this young whippersnapper who does not appreciate anything (including art and nature), and the whole scenario really shows us that generations have always fought with the generation before and the more things change -- well, you know the rest.

"In earlier times, young people had to study -- they didn't want to be taken for ignoramuses, so they had to work hard whether they liked it or not. But now one just has to say, 'Everything on earth is absurd!' and the deed is done -- young people are overjoyed. In fact, they were simply dolts before, whereas now they've suddenly become nihilists." --p. 56

I've been considering going to spend some time in Phoenix soon, what with the end of law school and not having a job or money to pay the rent in New York or any idea what to do next. Basically, I might totally be like Arkadii Kirsanov a mere few weeks from now: returning home to the parents' pad with all my worldly, educated, big city ideas but clearly not able to do anything with them.

The friend, Bazarov, is kind of a jackass. And if Brian and I go to Phoenix, I won't be bringing a jackass. In fact, for us the roles might be reversed: I might be more of a nihilist (and/or more of a pessimistic dolt) than Brian is. But Bazarov is funny, despite his pretense of not caring about anything and being above it all. He is a scientist becoming a doctor and he likes to wander around the forest examining trees and cutting open frogs. That is more important to him than learning about people and what they feel -- and certainly more important than love or any silly notions of a soul. Things might change after page 100; they are spending quite a bit of time with the beautiful Mrs. Odintsov... but for the moment, he still feels this way.

"And what's all this about mysterious relationships between men and women? We physiologists know what these relationships are. You study the anatomy of the eye: where does that enigmatic gaze, as you put it, come from? The rest is all romanticism, nonsense, aesthetic garbage. We'd be much better off going and looking at the beetle." -- p.34

So what about y'all? Do you stop books you have started? Do you have any guidelines for doing so? Have you experienced the ultimate satisfaction of throwing a book across the room? (Which can also be done at the end of a book, of course.) Do tell!


Kim Diaz said...

Gee whiz! I had NO IDEA that Empire Falls was competing with The Corrections for the Pulitzer! Good heavens! I mean, I love Russo, I do. But you can't compare the two books. No way!

That said - there have been many books that I've started and not finished - but not with any sort of system like your 100-pages rule. I think I will employ it. Thank you.

linda said...

You're welcome! Thank YOU for getting my back about The Corrections. I feel like I've ranted about that too much, but if you haven't heard/read me mention that then I clearly need to rant about it some more!

Joel said...

Instead of writing my 30 page paper... I find myself considering the last book I didn't finish. I can't remember it although I do have some ideas about last books I shouldn't have finished :)

I don't have a hard and fast rule, but 100 pages is a workable idea. I know when I was younger I read everything I started and I watched every movie I started. I for sure don't do the movie thing anymore and lately it just seems like I don't much read anything if it isn't for school.

Phoenix to visit? Or to stay a spell?

Joel said...

Ooops, "Joel" is really "Melissa" :)

Stacey said...

I don't have the patience anymore to make it to page 100 with stinkers. If a book doesn't get me within the first few pages I'm outta there. Someone better be ice skating,while blind-folded carrying a crate of eggs, on thin ice while a pack of mutant zombie werewolf chihuahuas, led by a hunchedback albino one- legged diamond thief, orphaned, mobster , from Timbuktu is chasing them!