Unread Books

Today we celebrate the birthdays of Charles Dickens and Sinclair Lewis.  They are both acclaimed authors, and I know the plots of many of  the books they wrote, but I can’t say I have ever read one of their novels from start to finish.  I am not proud of that.

What books have you not read  that you wish you had read? What makes it hard to read the books?

60 thoughts on “Unread Books”

  1. I have not read Sinclair Lewis either, and that feels like a bit of a failing. Just can’t get myself to pick up what I strongly suspect will be a heavy book (in the topical sense) some days. Also on that list: most of Jane Austen (much to the chagrin of my best friend who is a huge fan), Barbara Kingsolver (I’ve started the Poisonwood Bible twice), Al Franken’s latest (started it just before the news hit with That Photo and have not been able to pick it back up since then), and a book I really should finish for work… I used to have a really hard time not finishing a book – it truly felt like I was failing the author if I didn’t bully past chapter 2 through the end. I have since realized that I will never finish All The Books, so I feel less guilt about putting a book down if it doesn’t resonate.

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    1. kingsolver rotates causes with each book
      she is a bit of an off the deep end with the cause of the moment
      when i was with the library pen pals folks i wanted to bring her in to speak and the boss lady said i could go ahead but she had heard that there were issues. she couldnt remember what they were.
      turns out barbara was opposed to using jet fuel to do silly things like transport people so she didnt fly anywhere and declined. i saw her on cbs sunday morning once i think then never again. maybe they went to tucson once and decided it was too much trouble. i loved the one on wolves the one on pumice to make faded blue jeans the early ones were easy and i dont remember the causes. i like her

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  2. I had a set of the entire works of Dickens. My paternal grandfather bought it in the early 1900’s at a farm sale. It consisted of about 10 volumes of smalk print on cheap paper. The pages were darkening, and you could see where worms had burrowed into the books. I never knew book worms actually existed.

    I tried reading some of the stories, but I found the language too stilted and I didn’t have the patience to make myself read more than a couple of pages. I tossed the whole set in December . I fugure when I decide to try reading Dickens again, I will ger a worm free copy from the library.

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    1. One book that I have been trying to chew my way through is Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. It’s a heavy book, over 1000 pages, and difficult to read because of his extensive use of footnotes. To add to the difficulty, the footnotes are in extremely small type, so physically it’s a chore. I do enjoy his writing, though, and I intend to keep plugging away at it, but man, DFW sure did what he could to limit his reading audience.

      Joyce’s Finnegans Wake I gave up on. But, reading just a few pages, gives you an excellent idea of Joyce’s extraordinary sense of, and use of, language. I took one course on Finnegans Wake in college from a top Joyce scholar. One of the students in the class, skeptical of the merits of the book, suggested to Dr. Epstein that he thought Joyce was pulling a joke on his readers with this work. Epstein responded that if that were the case, the joke was on Joyce; he spent seventeen years of his life writing it.

      Another difficult one for me was Hundred Years of Solitude. Made two attempts to read it, but my interest flagged half way through both times. Perhaps the third time is the charm; we shall see.

      I don’t see the lists of classics as a list of books I “should” read. I see it more as the foundation on which much subsequent literature is based. Many, many references in modern literature would go completely over your head if you didn’t have at least a cursory knowledge of these works. But I agree with Steve that novels are far from the only source of reading pleasure.

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        1. I don’t see why we should guilt ourselves if we don’t like a classic. In the opening pages of Moby Dick we learn that Ishmael is a dreamy sort of guy who goes on mind trips at the slightest provocation. If you can buy into that, he is great company. If you can’t, this isn’t the book for you.

          I like to begin with the best book an author has written. For Dickens, that is probably Bleak House or David Copperfield. His worst book is often accorded to be the first: Pickwick Papers. If you hit it first, you are likely to write Dickens off. If you start with War and Peace you might never finish a fat Russian novel, but starting with Anna Karenina might open things up for you.

          The older I get the easier it becomes to drop a book that disappoints me. When I was 30 I couldn’t say “life is too damn short for stuff like this.” Now I can.

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      1. I had the same reaction to Pynchon as you describe with Joyce. Extreme idiosyncracy in use of language and sentence structure always strikes me as egocentric and self-indulgent and overtries my patience.

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    2. I read several of Dickens’ novels when I was in my late teens – in Danish translation. I wonder if the stilted language you objected to was lost in translation? I should check that out by rereading A Tale of Two Cities or something in English.

      Another author I was introduced to in translation was Steinbeck. I love his work. It wasn’t until I was in college that I read his books in English. It’s funny, but sometimes a translation is even better than the original. That wasn’t the case with Steinbeck, but the Danish translation of the musical My Fair Lady was simply brilliant. The same was true with HMS Pinafore. I’m wondering whether I’d enjoy Hundred Years of Solitude more if I were able to read it in Spanish?

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      1. When I reread Hundred Years of Solitude for Blevins, I found I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did back in my youth. The same was true for The Master and Margarita, which I put down partway through but I’m going to have another go at that one. It may have just been the mood I was in at the time.

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        1. Yes, the frame of mind you’re in when reading affects your experience, no doubt about that. Sometimes you just want something light and entertaining, and other times you’re more up for the challenge of something that makes you think.

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  3. I wish I would read more 20th century authors – I finally picked up Steinbeck this year and was deeply moved by Of Mice and Men, and nave now read The Moon is Down and Travels with Charlie.

    I think the reason I join book clubs is to get to things I never would otherwise. Thanks to Blevins Book Club I have read Hemingway (For Whom the Bell Tolls), reread Tom Sawyer and To Kill a Mockingbird…

    What kills a book for me is if I can’t find a character I like. I don’t have to necessarily relate to him/her, but I have to like SOMEONE in there.

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  4. The way the prompt question is posed suggests that the opportunity to dig into the backlists of classic titles has passed; I hope that’s not so. Just last summer I sought and purchased a copy of Moby Dick with the intent of finally assaying it. That hasn’t happened yet, but we’ll see. On my nightstand is a copy of W. D. Howells’ book The Rise of Silas Lapham, waiting its turn.

    The trouble is that there are just so many things I want to read that the classics seldom rise to the top. When I read essayists from the nineteenth and early twentieth century and I note how easily they allude to classical authors and their works, I am awed by their erudition and wish I could match it, but I never will. For one thing, time is against me at this point. For another, and I have to remind myself of this, I possess a body of knowledge not available to those authors and make allusions they could not have made.

    As I’ve mentioned here before, the books I have already on my shelves would easily last me 50 years if I read one a week and did not aquire another book. They are all books I wish to read. And new books on new subjects—new shiny objects—keep presenting themselves. The classics feel like they’ve always been there and will always be there. They just don’t carry the same urgency.

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  5. I haven’t read many of the classic Greek books from thousands of years ago other than Plato’s Republic (in school, of course). Not big on reading 1,000-page Russian classics like War & Peace, either.

    I feel like I’m missing out on some great secrets of the universe (or at least, secrets of literature) because I haven’t read books like these.

    I also feel I should read more hot-off-the-press best sellers but I hate feeling like a lemming more than I regret not reading the “latest and greatest,” which often end up to be huge disappointments. I will read some of those books, but often a year or two–or more–later, when I’m ready to read them.

    Chris in O-town

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  6. As someone who bristles when anyone tells me what I *should* do, I cheerfully ignore lists of books I’m supposed to read. Even great writers are capable of cranking out weak work, although I felt rewarded by all of Austen’s masterworks. Lists of books everyone should read can be biased in many ways, and sometimes a consensus great novel looks foolish or dated a few decades later.

    I wonder why so many lists of books I should read offer only novels. My reading has been immeasurably rewarded with books of memoir (West With the Night), nature (Sand County Almanac) or history (The Guns of August). And for sheer enjoyment, the best mysteries or cop novels have been great friends of mine (bless you, Henning Mankell!).

    I’m currently suffering great book withdrawal. I just finished Prairie Fires, the brilliant biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder (and her unlikable daughter). I’m in that moment when it hurts to have finished no book in my library of unread works seems nearly as promising. But wonderful books await me. I just have to identify them.

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  7. Of course I have way too many books that I haven’t read. And as a person who self imposes lists, I have quite a few that I think I should read. Although I think I’ve mentioned that a few months back I was feeling bogged down by my lists and abandoned them temporarily. That was the day I went on the library website and just typed in the word dragon. Like PJ I am struggling with Infinite Jest for exactly the same reasons. And I finally, after many years. decided that no, I am not going to read Ulysses by James Joyce. It’s just not happening. If I have to work that hard then it’s not enjoyable anymore.

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  8. I believe it was Thurber who wrote that Don Quixote was considered such a fine novel because no one could ever get through the English translation and didn’t want to admit it.

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  9. I’ve given up feeling like I should have read certain books or feeling bad that I haven’t read other books or not enjoyed certain books that lots of people say are great. Pfft. I admit that what I enjoy would be labeled fluffy by some people, but so what, I happen to think that there can be profound lessons or emotions experienced in books that aren’t difficult to read (case in point: the aforementioned Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck). I go by my whims and feelings of the day to decide what to read that day and if I read only 10 pages of a book and quit, well, there’s other books out there I can read instead.

    I’ve wondered why I’m a bit averse to reading something that other people tell me I should read. I think it’s because so much of my life is spent doing things that other people expect or need me to do and reading is one place where it’s easy to just please myself. So that’s what I do.

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    1. A married couple that we know see a lot of movies. On several occasions that have made a recommendation that we should see a certain movie. So far they have 100% record of recommending movies that Hans and I hate. They are and indicator as reliable as a good movie critic: if Jon and Linda love it, we’ll hate it.

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  10. One reason people disagree on books is that each reader has his or her own requirements. I’ve learned that my pleasure in a book is powerfully related to how well I respond to the writing. Some folks read to learn what the author has to say; some (like me) are transported by books that say things well. I love books that are often described as “lyrical.”

    A perfect example is Gatsby. The book includes stuff that gives me problems–snobbery and racism, for example. But the sound of the language gets me every time, and I read it again about every two or three years.

    The biography of LI Wilder I just read was unusual. I was thrilled at the cultural history it offered, plus the fascinating analysis of character. But I was equally pleased by the graceful writing. Not many books can be so pleasing in so many different ways.

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  11. I’ve had such disappointing experiences with the books on “recommended” lists that I’ve learned to trust them not at all. I wonder sometimes if the book reviewed is the same book I read. This is especially true of popular fiction. As with popular television, it appears that popular tastes and my own have diverged and are drifting ever further away until we have little in common anymore.

    This is no great hardship to me, as I have plenty of options that are not universally popular but suit my preferences. It does make me wonder, however, where popular taste is heading.

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    1. away.

      but tv shows are incredible…
      steves show was the first one. the english heir show…
      then all the others
      my son loves the gme of thrones. i have to watch it just to have something in common with him but he is odd and like to have his like to himself. i think others making cracks or comments about his likes are dishaertening.
      i love suits
      mozart int he jungle
      stranger things
      frankie and grace
      and i hear there are lots of good shows where people finally figured out how to make it good and ongoing without schmaltz and old tv heir of feeding you what the formula called for. gosh the cop shows the sit coms the stupid humor and social commentary.
      give me story tellers and a charachter ort two to latch onto and im happy

      we did just burn through stranger things and now have to wait until halloween to see the next.

      work 8 shows take of 36 weeks… i am not a fan of that
      leave it to beaver and andy of mayberry did 40+ shows a year
      leave it to beaver left 240 shows in 6 years
      it would take todays tv 30 seasons
      thanks wrong
      reruns and binge watching screwed it up. back in the day it was like a newspaper column
      tomorrow we get another one.
      watch for the daily paper that starts recycling the news… it could be easily done.
      taxes are high, third world countries are depressing, skin care for melanoma, elder care is in demand,
      pick 100 and recycle til someone notices.

      my that must be a popular topic i read something about that last week with similar perspective…
      but i dont think i finished it…

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    2. One book, highly recommended by several people I knew, and a best-seller, that I managed to stay with for about twenty pages before I decided I couldn’t finish it: Love, Eat, Pray. Why were so many people enamored of that book? It’s a mystery to me. I didn’t get it, at all.

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      1. Based on recommendations, I secured George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardofrom the library and I’m glad I didn’t buy it. It would be generous to say I was underwhelmed. I finished it in a day, only because it was so insubstantial. I still can’t understand why it is even taken seriously.

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        1. Oh thank you Bill – now I don’t feel alone. Everybody else I know has raved about Lincoln in the Bardo but I didn’t care for it much at all. I listened to it on CD and was really glad when it was over!

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  12. and of course

    i have the extreme good fortune of not remembering if i finished many books or not. i know i have read our town and enjoyed the heck out of it and also a christmas carol. i like dickens and have started quite a few and may have finished them i dont recall
    i enjoyed the heck out of joyce and his sideways presentation. always made me laugh. i didnt need to smoke anything to enjoy joyce. my brain felt like it was free floating while i was there.
    similar with the hundred years of solitude. i wantred to have him come to pen pals and they told me there s=was some problem with him too.
    well he was 100 spoke only spanish and in obama days he was still considered a dissident. i had to laugh. an artist gonna attack america with words. i got to ask bob dylan and kurt vonnegut too. fun choices i made to reach out to. they made some good choices in spite of not being mine while i was there and many authors whose books i dont finish. a dash of this a dash of that and on with life… i finish a few but touch on a bunch. when i run into a really special one i remember it but so much runs together for me. but come to think of the flavor of the book of the authors voice and the vibe is what i reatin and i never need to finish to get that. i can tell in the first couple of pages if i am going to love it.
    i just got the book oprah is going to be starring in the movie of and cracked the cover and loved it. a young adults book i gather but its wonderful . a wrinkle in time… i may take a while but ill finish it.

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    1. I absolutely adored A Wrinkle in Time when I read it as a teenager. I will have to read it again. I would like to see the movie…unless it gets terrible reviews. But I would think they’d be pretty careful with such a beloved book to get it right.

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  13. I will admit that I have trouble with really long books. It seems like such a commitment to start a 700+ page tome. Part of me thinks it’s a bit of hubris for an author to think they have that much to say all at one time. When I got Anna Karenina on CD from the library, it was 38 disks!! I did slog through it but I didn’t really enjoy it all that much.

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    1. I think there was someone who suggested a book club dedicated to reading short works b authors who usually go long. Might have been Nick Hornby. The Crying of Lot 49, Billy Budd, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Death in Venice, The Old Man and the Sea, for instance. Kind of like buying a sample size shampoo bottle to find out if you like it before you commit to the full size..

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  14. One book that I read, mostly because I had scads of time and was actually looking for a good, long, difficult read (really – I was looking for a challenge) is “The Fountainhead.” It had very little to recommend it and it was sheer force of will that got me to the end. But by gum, I can say I have read Ayn Rand – giving me solid ground to stand on to say that her view of the world and human beings is horrible, mean, and callous. And anyone who holds her up as a hero deserves to have their head examined.

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    1. One of my favorite quotes involves her other tome – same themes, just 500 pages longer: “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.” – John Rogers

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  15. I tried Midnight’s Children some thirty years ago or so, but didn’t get very far. Some of the other books I didn’t quite bond with include Gravity’s Rainbow, The Sound and the Fury, The Tin Drum, and Humboldt’s Gift. I may still have copies around of a couple of them, and may give them another try sometime. But it’s easy to get wooed away by something lighter.

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    1. The Sound and the Fury is one of my all time favorite books. Can’t explain it, but I am so completely in sync with what’s going on in that novel. I had no trouble at all tracking what was going on in Benjy’s head. It’s been years since I’ve read it, perhaps it’s time for a reread. Faulkner, to my mind, is an American literary giant.

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  16. Speaking of Sinclair Lewis, I remember getting fairly deep into Main Street, but I don’t remember if I ever finished it. I don’t think I did. Or I’ve forgotten the ending. Actually I’ve kind of forgotten the beginning too.

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