So, after getting back from a whirlwind tour of the Southwest states (a grand spring break was had by all, at least in my family), I was looking over my bookshelf. There are many books there, kept for both utility and pleasure alike, but one particular title caught my eye and brought back memories of a long, hard slog, which brings me to this here posting.
Every now and then, I run into a book that resists my reading and tests my persistence. I’m not talking about a book where you get so far into it and realize it’s a pile of shit, nor am I talking about the kind of literature where you soon realize you’re in over your head. No, this book is a much rarer creature: the kind of book where you bog down in one particular section, but whose overall merits are such that you keep coming back to the book, until you finally power through and finish the damn thing. I’ve read many, many books, but only a handful that have kept me hooked and trying to get through them until I made it, usually bruised and exhausted but triumphant. Metaphorically, anyway.
The first book that I remember in this category is the title mentioned above: Dune Messiah, by Frank Herbert. Dune Messiah is the second in Herbert’s legendary Dune series, and although I blew through the first novel, I kept stalling on the first 40 pages of Messiah. I don’t know if it was the historical information, the almost inscrutable density of the prose, or the annoying Face Dancer character, but I just couldn’t gain any traction on the story. My eyes would cloud, my brain would numb and no matter how often I repeated the mentat mantra, Herbert’s sequel kicked my ass. It took two years of on-again, off-again effort to surmount those dastardly pages, but once I plowed through to page 41, the story seemed to take off for me, and I burned through Messiah with a sense of excitement and relief. Of course, once I got to God Emperor of Dune, all that was over, but that’s a different story.
Another book that took me two years to work through was Cormac McCarthy’s brilliantly frustrating Blood Meridian. I was able to get a little further into that one before bogging, but it was a similar story. With McCarthy, though, the reasons seemed a little clearer, not to mention more numerous: repulsive characters, extreme violence, McCarthy’s disdain for dialogue tags or apostrophes, scintillating and anachronistic descriptive language, and that’s just what comes to mind this far after the fact. However, don’t confuse that for criticism; those are simply explanations for what I found so jarring (it was my first McCarthy novel). Once I got used to those aspects of his work, I was able to find my footing and, after accepting that there was nobody in the work to sympathize with—McCarthy seems to like working with characters that aren’t worth the lead it takes to kill them—I was able to finish the book and appreciate it for the masterwork it is. Doesn’t mean I’d read it again, but there you go.
One book in this category I finished not too long ago was Neil Stephenson’s Quicksilver, the first volume of the Baroque Cycle. With this one, though, it was more a matter of momentum than anything else; Quicksilver alone is around 900 pages long, and when I’d get it at the library, I’d get about 300-400 pages into it and have to take the damn thing back. Finally, after three or four attempts like this, I realized that the middle sections were going to require more time than I had to invest in a library book, so I bought a copy. Sure enough, after a month or two slogging around the 400-500 page mark, I was able to catch my second wind and push all the way until the end. While I enjoyed the book overall, I haven’t yet worked up the steam to continue on with the Cycle. I’ll probably have to buy the other volumes and do the same with them. Same story with Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos.
Finally, there’s the mother of all this type of book for me, the great leviathan that, like Sisyphus and that big-ass boulder, I find myself trying over and over again, only to (so far) fall back down the hill with nothing to show for it. Appropriately enough, it’s Moby Dick. I’ve been punching my way through this book for several years now, far longer than I spent on all the previously mentioned books combined, and so far, the furthest I’ve gotten is about 120 pages in. It’s the only individual book mentioned in this posting I haven’t finished yet, and even if I have to put it on my bucket list, I will finish the damn thing.
And now, dear readers, I throw open the gates to ask: Am I alone in this peculiar state of reading affairs, or do you also have a book or books you return to time and again? If so, what are they? Enquiring minds and all that, you know. Let the discussion begin!