I think I’ve mentioned before, that I don’t often give up on a book.
When I was younger, I liked to boast that I’d never been beaten by words. This might have been a good trait to hold to, except that I was reading anything that came within reach. It must have been during those years that I became an expert speed-reader. So many books: so little time. I skimmed through the great, the good and the mediocre.
The turning point book for me was Moby Dick, a novel I sought out after finding it mentioned in so many others. For those who’ve never come across a copy, it’s quite a hefty set of pages. Still, I’d read plenty of dense Victorian and Edwardians, so I wasn’t intimidated.
Of course I knew the story was about a whaler and that there would have to be some harpooning. I also knew that the Victorians wore whale-boned corsets, used their oil to fill their lamps and run their machinery, so I understood that whaling was an important industry. What I didn’t expect was so much detail about the slaughter.
I was a good way into the book. At least one whale had been caught and dismantled and I think they were chasing another when I realised that he wasn’t going to escape and I wanted more than that he should get away, I wanted him to turn and crush their flimsy boats.
I knew, even then, that I was missing the point: that there was something else I should be getting from the story. It was not really a fault with the writing. Even now, I can recall most of the characters. When they were interacting and just living day to day on the Pequod, I was fascinated. It is a vividly told story, but as I read, I became increasingly angry. Angry with a book?
Yes, why not? If books can make us laugh, cry, fall in love or feel all sorts of other emotions from pity onwards, why not anger? After all, there was a whole genre of it going on in the 1950s. But, of course, they were written for us to understand the frustrations of a generation, the angry young men.
Some great and highly readable novels they were too. I can go back to them again and again, despite the misogynist attitudes they so frequently demonstrate.
I am able to put aside the offence I might feel because these novels belong to their period. I’m not just talking about classic literature here. To read something only ten years old can be a reminder of how our values have evolved. In most cases, where the writing is good, these texts remind us of what has gone before.
Since Moby Dick, there have been other novels I’ve given up on. Some of them are now back on my shelf, and I hope to make time to try them again. Despite my best intentions, that may or may not happen. Each year I find titles I’ve missed, or hear about new releases that intrigue me, and that’s not even counting the time I spend on trying to keep up with short stories.