Mr. Elphinston talked of a new book that was much admired, and asked Dr. Johnson if he had read it. Johnson: “I have looked into it.” “What,” said Elphinston, have you not read it through?” Johnson, offended at being thus pressed, and so obliged to his own cursory mode of reading, answered tartly, “No, Sir; do you read books through?” ~ Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson
Life’s too short to read fiction that sucks. I’ve little patience for it, and each time I add a novel to my ‘must read’ list, my patience grows that much shorter. Once it becomes obvious there’s little, if anything, to be gained from reading a novel or collection, it gets tossed aside.
But there are books worth ‘looking into,’ even if you only read sections of them. Making this call is easy when it comes to nonfiction or short-story collections. But when it comes to novels, the idea becomes somewhat contentious. Why? Because, generally speaking, a novel is presented as a unified story. Many readers who fail to read a novel in its entirety feel as if they’ve failed somehow.
There’s no point in reading something ‘just because.’ Of course, if that’s your thing, then more power to you. But there are plenty of readers who’d rather take their time with what’s great than read tepid prose while half asleep for ‘street cred.’
That said, it’s equally important not to be discouraged from seeking out gems in a sea of mediocrity. So I’m working on a series of posts about novels and short story collections that contain brilliant writing and compelling moments that stuck with me, yet I find severely lacking when evaluated as a whole. Some of these titles are books I endured to to the bitter end. Others – not so much.
Why do this? Certainly not because I have anything against the authors. I make it a point to separate a specific work from a body of work and do my best not to allow one to affect the other. Nabokov, in an interview, said something very similar, and I’ve been gloating ever since.
No, I’m doing this for a variety of reasons, which, I hope will become apparent as time goes on.
Anyway, as an example of a book worth looking into, I have the perfect candidate, Don DeLillo’s, Underworld.
I’ll be posting more examples as I remember or discover them.