Posted by: Lizzie Ross | June 13, 2010

Books I can’t seem to finish

In something I was watching a while ago (wish I could remember what), one of the characters said he had an unusual form of life insurance; whenever he fell ill, he’d tell himself, “I can’t die. I haven’t read King Lear yet.”

If that method works, then I’ve got a quartet of life insurance policies sitting on my to-read shelf. Here they are, accompanied by photos of bookmarks that reveal the pitiful progress I’ve made in each.

Page 7, The Pickwick Papers (1836-37), 747 pp.

I’ve owned various copies of Dickens’ classic over the years, and I’ve started each too many times to recall. It isn’t just the book’s weight or the long sentences:

Time and feeding had expanded that once romantic form; the black silk waistcoat had become more and more developed; inch by inch had the gold watch-chain beneath it disappeared from within the range of Tupman’s vision; and gradually had the capacious chin encroached upon the borders of the white cravat, but the soul of Tupman had known no change — admiration of the fair sex was still its ruling passion.

OK, so maybe the 700+ pages are a bit off-putting. This book requires a commitment of time and energy I’m not sure I can sustain. Anything longer than 200 pages makes me nervous. But someday, somehow, I’ll tackle this. Perhaps if I partner it with Bertram Matz’s The Inns and Taverns of “Pickwick”, I’ll have a bit more incentive.

Page 21, Tristram Shandy (1759), 441 pp.

It was Steve Coogan’s movie about filming a version of Laurence Sterne’s comic novel that made me want to give it another try. It’s a strange book to have come out of the mid-1700s, with oddities such as the page left blank, where the reader can draw his (or her) own vision of the beautiful widow Wadman. As Shandy explains,

Thrice happy book! Thou wilt have one page, at least, within thy covers, which Malice will not blacken, and which Ignorance cannot misrepresent.

It’s a post-modern novel, before there were even modern novels!

Page 6, Swann’s Way (1913), 325 pp.

The initial volume of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past has one of the great first lines in literature: “For a long time I used to go to bed early.” The Overture then takes us back to the narrator’s childhood, to those moments in bed just before falling asleep, or just before fully waking up. Those moments of confused disconnectedness, when the rest of the world seems so far away and our pillow is softly caressing our cheek, when …

Sorry, Proust always has that effect on me. The dreamy tone of his language takes over, and I begin to float. Not quite like being on drugs, but definitely it intrudes on my style. My efforts at reading this have been so fruitless that I haven’t even gotten to the point where the narrator dips his madeleine in his linden flower tea, and my copy is so old it’s starting to crumble. I’ll need a new copy before making another attempt.

And, yes, I use this New Yorker cartoon as my bookmark.

Page 8, The Master and Margarita (1930s), 369 pp.

I probably need to know more of the Soviet Union’s history to appreciate this novel, but it comes highly recommended by a good friend. It’s evidently a retooling of the Faust story, with the Devil arriving in Moscow and throwing everything into disarray. His appearance is evidently a problem for people who believe in neither God nor the Devil. As with other Russian-language novels, I’m always confused by the many names for each character, and when I restart this, I’ll be sure to make a list, so that I can keep everyone straight.

So here’s where you come in. Find the poll at the bottom of the right column, and select the book you think I need to finish this summer. Whichever book receives the most votes by 30 June, I promise to read — and finish — and to report weekly on my progress.



  1. Can´t vote. (file not found) But it´s a cool idea to involve your readers;-)

  2. I’ve fixed it now–the poll is now visible in the right column.

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