great books never finished: david wallace-wells; barry schwabsky; david shapiro; jim lewis; luc sante; susan orlean; dale peck

Even the most devoted reader will encounter a book, no matter how compelling or good, that they just can’t seem to finish. Growing up with a German mother who always insisted one should finish what they start, I read books cover to cover. Large and/or difficult books were particularly daunting but also a challenge as giving up was not an option. Unless you were a quitter. Now it seems the very idea of reading a book to its end no longer holds sway even among the most serious readers of all: writers! Initially interested in discovering what “great” books various literary types in my orbit had abandoned in the eleventh hour (or sooner), I started a thread that revealed some unexpected attitudes on the subject, which follows below. Please join in, and share whatever writers, stories, and tomes you’ve relegated to the dog-eared pile of unfinished books!

Jane Harris (me):

Wm. Gaddis’ The Recognitions (1955), and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (1931) are two great books I’ve never finished. I found myself absolutely stunned by the brilliance of both, and read quite a bit of each, but they went the way of the bedside stack. I hope to finish The Waves on some long weekend retreat full of unfettered quiet and focus; The Recognitions, I think, one doesn’t have to finish to appreciate, but maybe that’s lame..?

David Wallace-Wells, editor, The Paris Review:

I hate answering that question about what major books I’ve overlooked or put down because the answers always strike me as shows of false humility—I don’t want to imply that I’ve read most of the important stuff, or that I’ve finished most of the big books I’ve started! The era in which one person could ably cover the canon in one lifetime died with John Stuart Mill, I think…”

Barry Schwabsky, poet, art critic:

I am extremely persistent. I can only think of Pynchon, both V and Gravity’s Rainbow. And I’m not sure if they’re great, but let’s say they can’t be pretty good–they are either total failures or great. I did succeed with Vineland and, of course, The Crying of Lot 49. They are definitely not great, just pretty good.

David Shapiro, poet, art critic:

I like the idea another way: What are the books that are themselves unfinished in some sense–and books that were unbuilt, like Milton’s unwritten book on Arthur or the Odes that Frank O’Hara might have written if he had survived into old age And perhaps we could think of poems better left unwritten like Fascist propaganda poems that my mother hated so much–bombing children like a rose was her peak of hatred. Great books for me are now almost completely reread and rereread. One never finishes the Encyclopedia number ll–or the Zohar, poorly translated many times– or Riegl poorly translated 20 times–or Meyer Schapiro, still being edited…Or the conversations unfinished between Meyer Schapiro and myself–and the density of the Koran, which I love; and the lost poems: the lost poems of Rimbaud in Africa; the lost dreams of those who think they can decide how much a reading is complete. “There is never all of any visit.” And there is never all, for example, in the Jewish tradition, of the great sea of the Talmud—Turn it, turn it, they say. Does anyone really think they know the Ramayana without becoming another person…The great paintings poems and frescoes are all inexhaustible and that is why we honor them. If you have only read the Wasteland a few times, read it a l000 times, then memorize it, then recite it to the air and friends…Imagine thinking that one had a complete reading of Hegel’s Phenomonology or the books of Pessoa I notice growing in Portugal’s stores…The greatest anthology the French say is one you read for yourself…I keep hoping for another meeting with Jasper Johns so that my present sense of him is unfinished indeed–If you don’t hear the Grosse Fugue a hundred times, you won’t know it…No music, no poems are ever finished,,,In my childhood I learned the facts of life from an inordinate amount of reading including the Penelope soliloquy…was that completion…Pollock: How do you know you’re finished with a painting; how do you know when naming love is finished? There are many trivial ways to answer Pollock, but at that moment I think he was being a rare pantheistic visionary…I LOVE endless works that cannot be completed except by pedants.,.If you’ve heard all the hundred cantatas of Bach, call me up I have so many questions…Good poets read diligently the infamous best works; great poets read what they need to grow and know….

Jim Lewis, novelist:

Right now, I’m afraid, the most important book I haven’t finished — the one that really looms over me — is the one I’m writing. There are many many books that I haven’t completed reading…yet, and many more that I haven’t started. But I’m not sure that “finishing” is really the point. I agree with Shapiro, mostly: I’ve read a lot of books: I don’t think I’ve finished any but the bad ones.

Luc Sante, writer:

Books that can’t be read sequentially but only dipped into at greater or lesser intervals for refreshment, or at random as fortune-telling props: The Anatomy of Melancholy, Finnegans Wake, The Making of Americans, The Arcades Project.

Books that might join that category but that I keep thinking I will sit down and read all the way through one day before long: Manuscript Found In Saragossa, The Man Without Qualities.

Books I’ve broken my teeth on time and time again but haven’t given up on quite yet: Pierre or the Ambiguities, Crowds and Power, The Recognitions.

Books I’ve pretended to have read all the way through but actually haven’t: The Confidence Man, the U.S.A. trilogy, Molloy/Malone Dies/The Unnameable.

Books I’ve been saving for a rainy day: Lucien Leuwen, Parade’s End.

Books I’ve flat given up on: Auto-da-Fe, Ada, Miss Mackintosh My Darling.

Yawning gaps in my education: the nineteenth-century Britons (besides Dickens), the nineteenth-century Russians (besides Gogol), Henry James.

Susan Orlean, writer:

Tristam Shandy! Have started it ten times! I will never finish it!

Dale Peck, novelist:

Well, after Mr. Shapiro’s comments everything else feels superfluous (sorry, Jim). It’s true, though, that you never finish some books: I’ve taught Howards End six times, and even though I rediscover many passages like old friends, I always find something fresh in it too, something I didn’t even remember being there despite all the times I’ve been through the text and written about it, not to mention the couple of hundred student papers I’ve had to slog through as well.

Somewhere in Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters the music critic Reger derides people who attempt to read the entire oeuvre of this or that great author (I think Nietschze is the writer in question, but wouldn’t swear to it). He says that he himself has only read a single page by any number of great authors, because, if a writer is truly great, then he or she should be able to fill one page with enough material—ideas, emotions, linguistic flourishes, what have you—that it can absorb even an active mind forever. Moreover, Bernhard says (through the mouth of Reger), if the writer is truly great than that single page should represent the whole of his or her artistic expression, so that, if you’ve taken the time to truly read that page, then you’ve in essence read everything by the writer.

I’ve trotted out that excuse to justify my not finishing any number of books, some of which I’ve loved (Against the Day, Tristram Shandy, Poe’s Collected Stories), some of which I haven’t (The Brothers Karamazov, Ulysses, Proust), but of course it doesn’t address one of the main reasons we do finish books, namely, pleasure, and with that in mind I can admit that there are a few unfinished books that hang over my head like a scolding specter: The Thousand Nights and One Night is the one that comes immediately to mind. When I first discovered it a decade ago (in the Mardrus-Mathers translation, which, unlike Richard Burton’s and many others, doesn’t edit out the sex) was one of those revelatory books for me, but my edition runs to four volumes and 3,000 pages, and after making my way through the first two I was worn down, and skipped ahead to read the Sinbad stories and call it a day. I admit it: I got tired. Fidgety. There were so many other books I hadn’t even cracked yet. Plus real life distracted me, even though books—especially books like The Thousand Nights—are supposed to distract us from real life. I guess what I’m saying is that it felt like a failure on my part, and every time I go on vacation I think that that’s the book I would bring with me, if only it weren’t so damn big.

Of course, it’s not always long books that go unfinished. Somehow I’ve never made it all the way through the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, even though it’s barely a hundred pages long. I think in this case it’s just too beautiful, and there’s the knowledge that once it’s done it’s done. There’ll be nothing else to discover—only rediscoveries, which have their own pleasure, but don’t carry that electric thrill of first reading.

Then there are the books I still haven’t even started yet, but that’s a whole other story, and I’ve rambled on long enough.

FROM BOOKFORUM .COM: “On Janestown, the blog where ‘naval-gazing meets the cancan,’Jane Harris has rounded up an eminent group of authors, editors, and critics to write about the great books they haven’t finished reading. And while there are many of the expected difficult authors on the list—Pynchon, Musil, Gaddis, et al—there are also some eloquent quips about reading in general along the way; for instance, critic David Shapiro writes that ‘Good poets read diligently the infamous best works; great poets read what they need to grow and know,’ or our favorite, by novelist Jim Lewis: ‘I’ve read a lot of books: I don’t think I’ve finished any but the bad ones.'”