Monday, June 20, 2016

Giving up on a book

Until I was maybe 22 or 23, the idea of abandoning a book was fairly alien to me.  There were a few novels I didn't complete due to time pressures, and a few non-fiction books that ended up laying down and not getting back to.  Indeed, I am finally back to Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle after a gap of 20+ years and expect to be done towards the end of the summer.  Maybe next year I will get back to Caro's The Power Broker, which is the story of Robert Moses and his impact on the New York region.

Even back then there were probably a few books where I was so turned off by the first few pages that I decided not to embark upon reading a book, but once I had launched, I usually tried to finish.  I can't recall when I started valuing my time in a different way.  Maybe some of the economics courses I took in grad. school finally took root, and I worried less about the sunk cost of what I had already read and more about the opportunity cost of what other more interesting things I could be doing with my time rather than reading a book that wasn't doing much for me.

I still don't do it that often, particularly if I am reading a book that I happen to own.  I'd rather get through the book once and for all, and then get it out of my library.  Although if it is a particularly long book, then those rules don't apply.  The last two books that I was tempted to abandon but stuck it out were Jacobson's The Finkler Question and Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival.  It is worth noting that in both cases, pushing on to the end didn't really add to the experience.  They didn't magically get better, and I could have used the time in a more enjoyable way.  Again, something to think about for the future.

I generally have to feel that the author is not playing fairly to the reader, either by setting up an incredibly unlikely scenario (such as Beth Powning's The Sea Captain's Wife, which is really just a romance novel masquerading as literature, another reason I disliked it) or by setting up absurd characters who aren't really internally consistent.  I should expand a bit more on this point.  I have already expressed how I dislike feckless characters (many of the artists in Barbara Comyns' work as well as several of the mothers in Molly Keane's work) but it isn't that hard to imagine them existing at some level or other.

However, I basically cannot believe that the immigrant father in John Marlyn's Under the Ribs of Death would ever had the gumption to come to Canada in the first place, given how he is such a pushover, at least as seen through the eyes of his son.  He makes his family eat the cheapest foods possible but has his wife cook beef soup for a sick man upstairs, where the boarders don't even pay him.  To add to the insult, one of them sued the father and ended up taking away his shop but then turns up shortly afterwards, penniless, and takes advantage of his hospitality.  Give me a break.  (The only time the man shows any spine is when he forbids his wife from trying to collect rent from these leeches.)  Such a person would have lived and died in the Old Country.  I guess the deal-breaker for me is that he expects 12 year old boys to reason things out and not get into fist fights when they are called names such a Hunky or other slurs against their ethnic background are made.  I understand Marlyn wants to show why the son rebels against his father and becomes a pre-redemption Scrooge-like character, but I am finding the plot and psychological insights to be laughable.

In general, this got quite poor reviews even among Canadian readers.  The main reason I wanted to read it was Neil Bissoondath wrote the afterward and there just aren't that many books set in Winnipeg.  Also, it is reasonably short and I thought it might round out the 9th Canadian Challenge.  I'll hang onto the book for another year and, perhaps against my better judgement, try one more time when I am in a more forgiving mood.  However, I expect in the end I'll just read the afterwards and then part with it.  As noted already, I have far better things to do with my time.

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