Thursday, August 18, 2011

My White Whale

by Michelle Gagnon

There was an interesting post on Slate this week entitled, "Overrated: Authors, critics, and editors on 'great books' that aren't all that great.

The article got me thinking about which stories endure, which eventually fall by the wayside, and why. In a world where people now fit their innermost thoughts into 140 characters or less (counting spaces), lengthy descriptive passages such as those found in TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES probably strike the modern reader as tedious, while back when it was first published, that type of writing was the norm. It's also interesting to see that some of the people quoted cited both GRAVITY'S RAINBOW and Joyce's ULYSSES as being overrated, but for very different reasons.

I've read a decent number of the canonical 'great books,' and enjoyed most of them (including TESS, although I'm not generally a big Hardy fan).
But there's one that has become my own personal white whale: appropriately enough, MOBY DICK. It's one of the few books that I've never finished, despite gritting my teeth and picking it up a half dozen times. I always enjoy the beginning, and sweep through the first twenty chapters.

Then I hit
Chapter 32: Cetology, and my eyes glaze over. I have yet to make it through Ishmael's attempts to classify whales scientifically. I read a page or so, then set the book down. One thing leads to another, and MD inevitably ends up back at the bottom of my TBR pile. I suppose I could always just skip the chapter, but I've never done that with a book before and something inside me balks at the thought.

Plus, I honestly have a fairly limited tolerance for sea shanties.

Yet this is supposed to be one of, if not
the, "Great American Novels." So am I really missing out by not finishing? Or has Melville passed his expiration date? How relevant are the classics to our contemporary lives now? Are some so outmoded they no longer qualify as great literature? More importantly, are certain books lauded as great simply because they've managed to survive the tests of time?

In the article, Elif Batuman points out that, "the right book has to reach you at the right time, and no person can be reached by every book."
I love that observation. Sometimes I wonder if I'd still enjoy Milan Kundera as much if I read him now, or if Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 YEARS OF SOLITUDE would make such an impression. I rarely go back and re-read books- there are simply too many amazing new stories coming out every week.

So today's question is this: which great book let you down?


  1. I think the comment about a book reaching a reader at a certain time is true. Certainly books across the ages will be relevant to different people all the time.

    I never read War & Peace until last fall---and I really enjoyed it. Though the style is one that is commonly poo-pooed today.

    On the other hand, I have had A Tale of Two Cities downloaded to my Kindle for 8 months now and I don't think I've gotten past chapter ten. I try every couple of months, but put it down and go read something else.

    But I do believe one day there will come a time when I pick up Tale again and start whizzing past chapter 10. But the time is not now.

    As a rule, I'm not put off by cumbersome detail or lengthy description. But I tend to like a longer, meatier read. Not sure why Tale keeps stopping me--other than I keep thinking, 'even after ten chapters I'm still not sure what's going on.' But that may simply be because I'm not reading it in one sitting.

    I hear much ado about Jane Austen but have never read any of those books. I hope when I get to them, they live up to the hype.

    BK Jackson

  2. Great post, Michelle. I've been wanting to read Salinger's Catcher in the Rye on my kindle. I was particularly touched by the quote about reading books at times we are ready for them and completely agree. I read Anne Rice's earlier books and loved the evocative LASHER, but re-reading passages not long ago, I was surprised at how different the experience was for me.

    I think we can train our minds to like the pace of commercial fiction, writing that allows us to get immediately swept away in a story. Having to work hard at reading becomes more of a chore, sad to say. I wish this wasn't true for me.

  3. Written simply and tastefully. It’s pleasant to read. Thank u.

  4. MOBY DICK is one of mine. That's the book that proved to me that a great story with great characters and a great book do not necessarily reside between the same covers. I've never finished it.

    I started DR. ZHIVAGO and THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO three times each. Never got more than a third of the way through them before deciding I could choose between ending the book or my sanity. Experts may differ on whether I chose wisely.

  5. Oh, did I love this post! For whatever reason, I have been unable to finish anything by James Fenimore Cooper.

    I did finish ULYSSES, and love the last few pages, but I'm not sure if it was because of the prose or the fact that it meant that I reached the finish line of a literary Iron Man competition.

  6. I think reading books at a certain time in your life is absolutely true.

    The so-called "great book" I have most problems with is Catcher In The Rye. It's generally forced on high school students and college students, and they seem to get a lot out of it (my son did last year at 16). I, however, read it when I was about 30 and had a more "parental" POV for the book that didn't go over all that well.

    On the other hand, The Old Man And The Sea spoke to me strongly in my 30s at a time when I understood better about how great effort can be perceived as failure, but isn't.

  7. I had to read MADAME BOVARY three times for different classes. I hated it each time -- at one point the author spends several pages describing a shade of green paint. My bigger problem with the book, though, was that I couldn't care what happened to any of the characters.

    Ditto for A CATCHER IN THE RYE, which I read as a teenager. As far as I could tell, there were no major plot elements or turning points. Reading it was like listening to a depressed kid ramble. I wanted to get paid, like a therapist.

    Great books I enjoyed -- most of Jane Austen, Hemingway, Charles Dickens, and Fitzgerald.

  8. "I took a speed reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia." - Woody Allen

    I am one of those who does love Moby-Dick, but I know a number of people who were forced to read it in high school who had the opposite reaction. (If anyone wants to give it another try, be sure to pick up a physical copy with the illustrations of Rockwell Kent in it. They're awesome. If you get stuck in a chapter, just move ahead to the next illustration and keep going!)

    I'll tell you a book I barely got through, Middlemarch. I remember screaming, after about a hundred pages in the middle, "Make a decision already, will you!"

    I compare that to Dickens, who I could read all day, every day.

  9. Great post!
    I did finish MOBY DICK. I hate half of it.
    I did finish ULYSSES. Some bits are funny.
    I've read CATCHER IN THE RYE twice. Never got it.
    I did finish DON QUIXOTE in Spanish (I'm Spanish). It was torturous, even though it was supposed to be enjoyable.
    I bought the whole 7 volumes of IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME. I gave up before I reached page 150 of the first book.

  10. Love this post. Beauty is surely in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes cataracts actually help.

  11. Michelle, sometimes I wonder if the "emperor's new clothes" syndrome can apply to a few of the "classics".

    In school, I relied heavily on Cliffs Notes to get me through the classics while I spent my time reading cheap paperbacks.

  12. A great article, I find comfort in the thought about books reaching a reader at certain times - - I confess to feeling guilty when I don't find a great book great.

    Two misses for me: Catcher in the Rye (hated it as a teenager) and Brideshead Revisited (I like Waugh, but I just couldn't latch on to the deep profundity that is supposed to be there).

  13. Michelle - thanks for the fun post.
    The linkage of enjoyment/taste and timing of read is true for me.
    I've gone through phases where I devoured SCi-fi (now rare to never), then read classic old authors (Jules Verne, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle) and now read recent mystery/suspense/thrillers almost exclusively.
    Did you find that as your appreciation of craft grew that your taste narrowed? I had an instructor tell me that she found it difficult to find anything she liked anymore.

    While far from classic I feel I'm outside the main stream in that I find Lee Child difficult to finish. I'm sure he is not worried about it as he seems to be getting by w/o my readership.

  14. Michelle - thanks for the fun post.
    The linkage of enjoyment/taste and timing of read is true for me.
    I've gone through phases where I devoured SCi-fi (now rare to never), then read classic old authors (Jules Verne, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle) and now read recent mystery/suspense/thrillers almost exclusively.
    Did you find that as your appreciation of craft grew that your taste narrowed? I had an instructor tell me that she found it difficult to find anything she liked anymore.

    While far from classic I feel I'm outside the main stream in that I find Lee Child difficult to finish. I'm sure he is not worried about it as he seems to be getting by w/o my readership.

  15. Someone here mentioned The Old Man and the Sea--now I'm confused which one I was forced to read in school--that one or Moby Dick. On the whole, anything I was "forced" to read in school pushed me away, which is an interesting problem in itself.

    I don't think they should discontinue having kids read classics, but it does seem to have driven quite a few kids away from literature, not to it. But maybe it's a 50/50 split--maybe for as many kids like me who rebelled at being "forced" to read certain books, there were just as many who developed a new love and appreciation for them from that young age.

    But that whole 'forced to read' thing is what has made me slow to pick up the classics as an adult. All in all, my own loss. That's what I get for being contrary and hard to get along with. 8-)

    BK Jackson

  16. Great post! Actually Moby Dick let me down too! I had an English professor whose authority on early American Literature I trusted deeply. Everything else he had us read I was carried away with, it was so good. We never could agree on Moby Dick. For me, it was painful. Painful! I was surprised too because I think Bartleby the Scrivener is one of the greatest short stories ever. I think the best books are not the ones that necessarily stand the test of time but are the ones that raise questions about humanity and society. The kinds of questions that can never really be answered. Things change but being human doesn't and a great work of literature is able to expound on themes that will resonate with a human being whether they read it today or whether they read it 200 years ago. If that makes any sense! For example the very first line of The Scarlet Letter (which I think is one of the best books ever written) makes reference to the fact that when the Puritans came to the New World, the first thing they did was build a cemetery and a prison. Two things you cannot do without in ANY society. Interesting. I would say that still applies today. Universal timeless themes.

  17. Oooh I could have a field day with this one! I'll start with Poster # 1's favortite: War and Peace. Can't stand it. Dull. Excessive length. Too many minor characters. And story?! Snort. Didn't care for Anna Karenina either. Not a Tolstoy fan at all. Dude needed an editor. And Madame Bovary....yuck! A while back TKZ had a thread on whether one can tell if something is written by a man or a woman. NO WAY would any woman have written this book. It shows a complete lack of understanding of women on the part of Flaubert. The Count of Monte Cristo is my example of the book with good characters and a glimmer of a good story that is just too poorly written to really come together for me. Maybe it was the translation I read, but I remember thinking how much better I expected the book to be. I could think of so many more books that disappoint, but fortunately many more please. What's awkward is when the book disappoints and you're acquainted with the author. That's a tough on.

  18. I think I was too young to appreciate George Orwell's 1984 when we were forced to read it in 9th grade. I just couldn't get into it and I don't remember why.

    This makes me want to buy it and read it now that I'm thinking about it.

  19. There have been quite a few for me, most of which have been mentioned here including whales, Russians, and Puritan adultresses. To get over it I found some of the books comic book versions as a kid and was able to breeze through them.

    Recently the only book I have started but absolutely could not finish was Rushdie's "Satanic Verses". Nothing I did and no matter how hard I tried made it make sense. I think the reason the fatwa was called on him was not that anyone found sacriledge against Mohamed in it, but because no one could figure out what he was talking about and assumed it was heretical because it was so obtuse that the very non-sensicallity of the book offended Allah.

    It now sits shelved.

    One other method I have found to get through books I couldn't other wise make myself read is to listen to them as audiobooks. That way at least they stick in my subconscious somewhere.

  20. Absolutely agree on finding a book at the right time.

    I couldn't finish 100 YEARS OF SOLITUDE.

    Enjoyed ULYSSES, though I probably wouldn't now -- at the time I was an English lit major, so I was steeped in the necessary reading skills (also, it came with not so much a Cliff's Notes as an entire second book to explain it).

    Now most of my reading is SF&F, but I pick up the occasional classic or literary award-winner or genre classic for variety, while giving myself a free pass not to like or "get" it. Some I really enjoy, others I don't, and that's okay.

    For example, in the past year I've read PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (loved it), WUTHERING HEIGHTS (hated the characters), and the SF classic THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS (very dated, but interesting snapshot of the time).

    Not a classic, but one book that I read at the wrong time was Tamora Pierce's ALANNA (actually the whole series). I should have read it as a pre-teen or young teen -- would've loved it back then.

  21. I read a very lengthy portion of Moby Dick in my literature book. I think I made an unconscious vow never to read it. I really wanted to read Silas Marner, but I couldn't understand it. I did like The Black Arrow, Howard Pyle's Robin Hood, and Pride and Prejudice.

    I haven't read many classics because I don't know what they're about. The back of most classics elaborate on how great the book is but don't tell me anything about the story to draw me in.

  22. Tried to read the Bible from cover to cover.

    Didn't happen.

    The Song of Songs is kinda hot, though! :)

  23. Awesome post! That was a great Slate article, we had a lot of fun with it on Facebook.

    I'll read "Grapes of Wrath," any time, any place. I can open it at random and immediately tell you the scene, the characters and where the story is. Baffles me when someone says they don't like it.

    A brick of Michener makes my tail wag. However, when it comes to "classics," my favs tend toward children's books. Couldn't read Moby Dick or the Tolstoy and Gravity's Rainbow nearly drove me to violence.

    However, when I was a young kid, we moved a lot and didn't have much. Someone gave me a child's classics set and I read them until the spines wore thin. The ones that survived to adulthood are The Wizard of Oz, The Peterkin Papers, Pinnochio and Grimm's Fairy Tales.

    I found them just tonight when repacking boxes. I do believe I will see what the wise lady from Philadelphia has to say about the lasting power of certain books.