Sunday, August 7, 2011

A third of the whole

Life is too short to finish a book you don't like. This is probably the most precious lesson I've learned in my life as a reader. With so many wonderful works out there that I yearn to read - and more being written every day - why should I waste my time with anything less than wonderful?

With 'wonderful' I don't necessarily mean literary masterpieces. I mean any well-written, well-constructed piece of writing, from a crime novel to a children's picture book, which moves me personally.

The question, of course, is when do you drop a book. How many boring pages do you have to endure before you can be sure this is as good as it gets? Because another invaluable lesson I've learned from a lifetime of reading, is that you should never give up too soon. Not all great books grab you from the first line, like Tolstoi's Anna Karenina ('Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way') or Austin's Pride and Prejudice ('It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife').

Reading is not in the first place about instant gratification. Sometimes the pleasure you get out of a book is directly related to the effort you put into in. And sometimes you have to slog through a valley of incomprehension or boredom before you reach the peaks of pleasure. For me the book that drove home this lesson, was Don DeLillo's Underworld. It starts with a loong description of a baseball game which made me abandon the book two times before I eventually managed to get past the damn game - and fell in love with the rest. To this day I regard Underworld as one of the greatest American novels of the past fifty years.

Nowadays I have the one-third rule to help me decide when to drop a book. I'm not talking about bad books, the kind you drop after a few lines without a tinge of remorse, I'm talking about supposedly good books by supposedly good authors that just don't do it for me. You know, the ones your intelligent friends or some reviewers love, but they leave you stone cold? In these cases I believe I owe it to the author to read at least a third. If it has 150 pages, I'll read 50; if it has 900, I'll keep going until page 300. If I'm not hooked by then, I know I won't get hooked at all. Then I cut my losses and run. Bye-bye, book. No-one can say I didn't try. Je ne regrette rien.

I recently applied this one-third rule to the Australian Steve Tolz's 711-page debut novel, A Fraction of the Whole. This 'riotously funny first novel is harder to ignore than a crate of puppies, twice as playful and just about as messy', according to Wall Street Journal on the jacket, which made me believe it would be perfect summer reading. Well, maybe I'm not as fond as puppies as I thought I was, but I found the playfulness and the messiness rather tiring. Still, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, so I decided to withhold my judgement until I'd read at least a third.

It tells the story of the two Dean brothers, one a criminal, the other crazy, and of the son, Jasper, that the crazy Martin Dean brought up by himself. It starts with Jasper in jail - where else would you be with such a family? - then jumps to Martin's catastrophic childhood, then back to Jasper, a sprawling epic if ever I saw one. It abounds with the kind of self-deprecating black humour that the young Woody Allen was so good at. But I have to admit, by page 237 I was still underwhelmed.

I kept going, though, mainly because I was vacationing in another city with nothing else to read. I only really got into the book in the second half, and by the end I was actually glad I'd persevered. Like when you grow to love a puppy you wanted to drown in the beginning, I suppose.

But I'm convinced it would have been a much better novel if the author, with the help of a rigorous editor, could have deleted at least a third. If only he'd taken his own title a little more seriously. A fraction of a fraction would have been sufficient. Two thirds of the whole would have been a very satisfactory read, thank you.

Who was it who said in every fat book there's a thin one screaming to get out? I don't agree, I love some fat books, but this one could have done with a diet.


  1. So, a third it should be then?!

    I usually don't buy a book until I have read the beginning few pages, so to say, the getting-into-it-phase, then open up somewhere in the middle to read if the 'wonderful' style continues to delight, inform or capture me.... but then I do something, I should not even relate here.... read a few pages of the ending. Alas! That has bothered me only those very few times when I bought a crime story. With reading a fascinating work, I become so envolved, that to know an ending, is not even of consequence, as the end of a novel never stands isolated, never apart from the theme.
    With this, and of course a few reviews, I have not made many mistakes, the ones I have not read further, yes those lie around with their bookmarks at the third!
    Thank you Marita!

  2. Nooooo! That was my first reaction when I read that you take a peep at the end of a book - but then I realise I've also done it with books that bore me, when I don't want to continue reading but still want to know the ending. When a book is good, though, I DO NOT WANT to know the ending in advance. In fact, the better the book, the slower I read towards the end - to postpone the end of my reading pleasure for as long as possible.