A friend from work and I recently embarked on a project, at my cajoling: we would read one book a week together and discuss it. This came about because I want to read more, and he reads like all the books in the world will be consumed in a bonfire tomorrow. Since he already goes through several books a week, compromising on one with me wouldn’t be a big deal (and he’d have someone to discuss it with), and I would be given a measure of accountability. Win-win.
The first week was wonderfully successful — we happened to pick a vibrant, delicious, funny book (Heliopolis), and I relished in it. After finishing the book, I basked in its satisfying afterglow for hours. After work we headed over to Mountain Sun and sang its praises over a pitcher of IPA (a wicked pitcher of IPA, as I discovered the next morning), and I felt that the inaugural meeting of our intense little book club was setting us off to auspicious start.
Then we picked the next book.
A brief interlude: Heliopolis was published by Europa Editions, a small publishing group associated with Penguin that specializes in literary fiction, particularly English translations of international titles. It’s a classy dame in a miasma of celebrity memoirs and one-a-month formulaic mysteries. Europa has its own shelf just after you walk into the bookstore, and it dares you not to judge the books by their covers. Enthralled as I was with Heliopolis, I insisted we continue our Europa trend. Obviously, these people know literature. That’s how we ended up with Rondo.
My coworker picked it. I don’t blame him, really: from the book jacket, it sounds fabulous. World War II Poland, a torrid love affair, secret societies, the theater scene. Blurbs on the back obliquely praise the work as “masterful” and “impossible to forget.”
Then we started reading it. Hm, I thought. It’s a little slow, but that’s alright. Fifty pages in, I was completely zoning out. I checked in on his progress and texted a worried, “Is it picking up?” “I don’t think it’s a picking up kind of book, more building up,” he responded diplomatically. Some books are like this: they make you work for a while, bob along serenely at the top of the water before they reel you in. We were holding out, soldiering on.
Then things started happening: sex, death, apparently love, the beginning of a war. Still I was being kept at arm’s length, the story providing all the emotional pull of an instruction manual. I am one hundred pages in, a war is setting in, and if the narrator abruptly killed himself, I would feel relieved at no longer having to read his brittle, lifeless story.
I approached my offending coworker. “I feel nothing,” I admitted. “They slept together. Things are happening! And I feel nothing!” He nodded sympathetically. “Nothing,” he agreed.
“It’s bad. We have to read it, and then talk about why it’s so bad,” he said, giving the terrible book a purpose, but also committing us, a sentence, an act of discipline.
But oh, this book. So unengaging. It’s an unspooling of events, a description without a story, a narrative stripped of narrative power.
Reading this sort of book is a bit like climbing a mountain, demanding one’s tenacity and an ability to power through exhaustion. If we quit now, we’d be only part-way up the mountain. Maybe “impossible to forget” is only earned in the home stretch — it’s the view from the top. And yet, as of now, the book feels more like a plateau. It continues to be unengaging, the view stays the same.
To finish or not to finish? What are the merits of giving up? How many pages before an author betrays your trust with an unworthy work?