It’s rare that I do not finish a book I have started to read. In my twenties I started Infinite Jest and Song of Solomon and could not finish either. I have since picked up Song of Solomon, read it, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I still plan to take up Infinite Jest sometime this year.
For me, when it comes to not finishing a book the case has often been that I was not ready for a particular book. Too young, too impatient, etc. Then there are the books that I was once enamored with, and now can’t bear to re-read. Anything by Isaac Asimov comes to mind. I have forced myself to complete books that I did not like or felt tepid about (Boring boring boring… by Zach Plague or Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros, repsectively).
I bring this up because my quest this year to read a number of books to fill in the gaps of my literary education has hit a few bumps. Two bumps, to be exact. They are Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy, and I declare them to be UTF.
I read the first half of Don Quixote and then started on part two only to see that the joke was going to be the same. There are parts that are very humorous (attacking the windmill and wearing the brass pot as a helmet) and dull (the story about Cardenio). It is what it is advertised to be: the first baggy example of a novel. It’s a novel about what happens when a person is influenced by bad novels, and the novel eventually references itself. In this it anticipates much of what has subsequently happened in the development of the novel. There is no overstating its importance to the development of the novel.
I found Quixote to be more funny than Shandy, mostly because there is more physical and situational humor. Ont he other hand, Shandy is written in the coded indirect style of the 18th century; nothing can be said plainly. Add to the fact that the whole point is never to say anything plainly or to get to the point (a great joke but one that can’t sustain my interest for over 400 pages), and my patience is quickly exhausted.
With my time as a stay-at-home-dad being devoted mostly to cooking, cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping, and caring for a kindergartner and a toddler, my time is too precious to be wasted on narratives that don’t interest me, even ones that are considered classics. With Quixote and Shandy I feel, too, as if I get the jokes and the importance of the novels to literature without having to finish them.
As much as I hate not finishing a book I start, I have come to conclude at the age of 40 that some books are simply not worth my time to finish once I’ve decided that I’ve gotten all I need from them. As such, this rule seems a sound one.
One of her online friends reminded her there’s even an abandonment rule: The “Deduct Your Age From 100 and Read That Many Pages Before Giving Up on a Book” rule. The older you get, the less inclined you are to waste your time on something that doesn’t grab you.
P.S. If you’re going to read Tristram Shandy, be sure to read Don Quixote first. There are many references to Cervantes’ work throughout Sterne’s work and even some parallels (Uncle Toby and his assistant planning to build fortifications is a clear echo of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza planning their adventures).
P.P.S. If you’re reading the Edith Grossman translation of Don Quixote, skip the intro by Harold Bloom. In keeping with his Patented Theory that Everything In the Universe Is Really About Shakespeare, he blabbers on about Hamlet as much as he writes about Don Quixote to no clear end.