By Hilary Mantel
(Note: Before reading, I want to be clear that this post has very little to do with Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize winning novel Wolf Hall. I know it's the title of the blog post, but I'm feeling tangential.)
When I first started Reading in Taiwan, it was my mission statement that I would anything and everything that fell into my grubby, book-devouring little hands. The thought process was that I was living in a small town on a small, non-English speaking island with the bare minimum of English books at my disposal. It was a great social experiment and for a time it was pretty damned awesome. I read books I would have otherwise never have read. I read romance, fantasy and non-fiction novels about soccer players. I read I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. I was taking one for the proverbial team.
But over the course of three years, things have changed in my neck of the woods. I am not as isolated from the literary world as I once was. A couple of years back my wife was thoughtful enough to buy me a Kindle which made acquiring new books a cinch. Furthermore, acquiring actual bound books made of paper has become a lot easier in Taiwan due to the Internet and 7-11 (God bless 7-11). Nevertheless, I remained resolute in my stubbornness to read anything that came my way and finish everything I started, regardless of how good or bad it was. I mean I read The Story of O when I really didn't have to. I wanted to keep the spirit of the blog intact despite the encroachment of modern technology and increased access to books.
That is, until today.
I was driving home tonight thinking about how I was 40% through Hilary Mantel's 2009 Booker Prize winning novel Wolf Hall. I set the same goal I had set for myself every day this past week: to finish at least 10% before going to sleep. I have accomplished that goal exactly zero times this past week and it suddenly occurred to me that I would not achieve it tonight either, nor tomorrow night nor any night after that. I was staring down another two weeks (minimum) of slogging through Wolf Hall. It felt like the literary equivalent of sitting in a dentist office waiting room waiting for a voluntary, and completely unnecessary, root canal. Why was I subjecting myself to such an avalanche of torture when there are perfectly corpulent books awaiting me on my shelf and Kindle? And considering I was trying to read Wolf Hall quickly just so I could start something new, well, that's a terrible reason to read.
"But what about your mission statement?" I thought to myself.
"A cute but antiquainted dogma," I rebutted. "One rooted in another time. Another place."
"But what will people think when you say you couldn't finish Wolf Hall, a novel that was so celebrated? and why do I sound like Yoda?"
"Care not what people think. Nothing to prove, you have."
(Seriously, this is actually how I think).
The truth is, I was never going to like Wolf Hall. And I should have known.
Don't get me wrong, Wolf Hall is well written and painstakingly researched and probably deserves the Booker Prize for its meticulous (almost obssessive-compulsive) attention to detail alone. But Wolf Hall had three strikes against it right from the start and I should have seen the signs.
First, Wolf Hall is about the English Royal Family in general and unless the novel was written by Bernard Cornwell and is set on a blood-soaked 10th century battlefield in Essex, I'm not interested. As an unwilling citizen of the Commonwealth, I have a knee-jerk disinterest in the Royal Family. Just mention the names of Prince William and whatshername and my mind switches to auto-pilot whereby I continue looking at the speaker and nodding in a polite fashion but internally I have begun to ponder new and interesting ways in which to rip the speaker's tongue from his or her mouth.
Second, Wolf Hall is about Tudor England in specific. As a history major, there are nations and time periods I like better than others and I am hard-pressed to think of a time and place that interests me less than Tudor-era England. (maybe modern day England, but I'll have to run some tests to see which sets off the boredom alarm first and that's a diagnostic I'm in no hurry to run). Give me the Mongol Hordes riding across the Asian steppe or the Early Christian Church fathers or Qing Dynasty China any day of the week. But try to get me excited about Henry disengaging from Rome due to his inability to conceive a son and you've got a recipe for a nap.
Third, the length of the novel was the nail in the coffin. I have a pretty high threshold for shit. I can usually roll my eyes through a bad book just to say I've suffered like Jesus on the cross or something at parties. My mother always called me a masochist, but even I have limits. It's one thing to press on through a 250 page novel you hate. It's quite another to press on through a 700 page novel of the same ilk. I'll force down a bad meal, but I won't eat the leftovers for a week. That's just dumb.
Of course, I want to be clear that I'm not calling Wolf Hall a bad book. It most certainly isn't. It's just not my thing. Not at all. Not even a little.
But all this got me to thinking about novels that I have left unfinished. Surprisingly, in a lifetime of voracious reading the novels I have quit are few and far between. I've read lots of books that seem to pop up on other people's Did Not Finish lists. I've read (and enjoyed) long books like Infinite Jest. I've read difficult books like V. by Thomas Pynchon (I didn't understand it, though) and I've read the entire Old Testament. I've also read my share of terrible novels (Cathy Lamb comes to mind) But when it came to finding books I never actually finished, I could actually only think of six (though I'm sure there are more):
1. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien: Of all the books I have ever hated, I hate this one the most. I hated it from the beginning. I hated the language. I hated the fact that each character took three pages to ask for a cup of tea and I hated Tom Bombadil (seriously... WTF?). I think I dropped this book somewhere around page 400 and have vowed never, ever to pick it up again.
2. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: At the age of 16 I had this notion that I was going to become a man of letters or some such nonsense. I determined to read all the great works of literature and I was going to start with The Brothers Karamazov. Great start. I got about 60 pages in, realized I didn't understand a single thing that was going on and I went back to reading Michael Creighton novels. I've been meaning to pick this one up in recent years, but there is always something more interesting on my shelf. I think my 16-year old self has 37-year old me spooked.
3. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: I love Marquez and I've read several of his other novels, but this one eluded me. Perhaps it had something to do with every character having the SAME GODDAMNED NAME!
4. Wuthering Heights by Charlotte Bronte: I recall literally throwing this novel out my bedroom window with only 40 pages to read. I recall hating it with every fiber of my being but for the life of me, I cannot recall why. As I said before, I'm a masochist, but not so much of one that would willingly revisit this novel to find out why I hated it.
5. The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson: Because it's plain terrible.
6. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig: I honestly believe that everyone who loves this novel didn't actually read it. It's worse than The Black Arrow.
I can now add Wolf Hall to this esteemed list of personal literary failures.