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It was the best of tomes, it was the worst of tomes

It was the best of tomes, it was the worst of tomes published on

I’ve become a lot more ruthless about giving up on books than I used to be.

Time was when it would take an act of physical coercion to get me to abandon a novel, no matter how tedious or disturbing I was finding it. But somewhere along the line, I closed one too many back covers thinking, “What the hell was that?”

Maybe it was trudging my way through the back half of Philip K. Dick’s VALIS that pushed me over the edge. (It was ambitious as hell, this being Philip K. Dick… but damn, it was a mess.) I do distinctly remember bailing on Tolkein’s The Silmarillion with exactly zero sense of guilt.

Since then, I’ve become a sudden-death reader, tossining books aside for reasons ranging from misogynist writing to an irritating authorial voice. I dumped one highly-recommended book after the first few paragraphs made me realize I was in for two hundred pages of ersatz Neil Gaiman without the insight or wit.

I’ve dropped out of really, really good books because I could feel the clouds of grim foreboding, and wasn’t prepared to follow the narrative down into the depths of despair. Maybe someday I’ll develop the strength of character to return to Mistry’s A Fine Balance, but sweet mother of pearl, was that ever bleak.

Then again, I was wowed by the brilliant Fall On Your Knees, where the plot basically goes “Oh, you thought what just happened was bad? It’s actually so much worse than you think.” And where a novel gives me a perspective I can’t find elsewhere, or explores an idea I’m encountering for the first time, or is otherwise funny and entertaining as hell, I’m a lot more willing to hang in there.

What it comes down to is, in a world filled with terrific books, life’s too damn short for meh.

Okay: your turn. What’s your mid-book deal-breaker? What’ll make you toss a tome, reject a read or spurn a screed? And what books have you given up on?

Feeling way too happy? Read a novel.

Feeling way too happy? Read a novel. published on No Comments on Feeling way too happy? Read a novel.

Many great novels, like a lot of great art, force us to confront things we’d rather avoid. I get that.

But oh my lord, literature can be a massive downer. I first encountered that in high school, when we read the short story “Paul’s Case” back to back with The Mayor of Casterbridge. Let’s be clear: astonishing works of art are astonishing. But after years of stories where plucky protagonists invariably wrested victory from the jaws of defeat, they were a shock. As an introduction to tragedy, it was like learning how to eat spicy food by eating a scotch bonnet salad.

Later in life, I read Fall On Your Knees. It’s a truly beautiful novel, one of the best I’ve ever read. It’s also like peeling an Onion of Horror: just when you think the day at the centre of the plot couldn’t possibly get any worse, holy Jesus does it ever. I recommend it strongly, with the caveat that a list of trigger warnings would be longer than the book itself.

It’s taken me years to realize that I have a limited capacity for bleakness, even in the context of immense beauty. (Maybe especially in that context.) It’s what stopped me from reading the rest of A Fine Balance: after a few chapters, you get that dawning recognition that this is not going to end with everyone enjoying a hearty laugh and a second helping of trifle.

The cost of avoiding books like that is obvious: you miss out on some transcendent experiences, and some profound insight into what it means to be human. The older I get, the keener my sense of how steep that cost really is.

Maybe it’s not too late for me. Maybe someday I’ll get to the point where I seek out novels that unflinchingly stare into the darkest crevices of the human heart.

Until then, I’m working my way through the Jasper Fforde oeuvre.