I used to have a problem, and it caused me to read some weird stuff in my past which may — or may not — have been of benefit later in my life. For example, when I was about ten years old I read Neville Shute’s “On The Beach”. It was way over my head, that’s all I really remember. About the same time I read a short literary novel which I can’t remember the name, but it was all about correctly setting dining tables, cooking small birds in meat pies and… Hell, I don’t know. I believe it was a classic of some kind.
So was I some kind of child genius?
Not even bloody close. But I read a lot and occasionally picked up books my mother was reading. My problem which plagued me for decades afterwards was that I can’t not finish a book I’ve started to read. It caused another strange habit. I’d start reading another book, if I got bored with the one I was already reading. I used to read maybe four or five “Famous Five” novels at a time searching what I felt were the good bits. I’d still finish them all, though.
By the way, my mother normally read some pretty trashy stuff and I can’t explain what the hell she was doing reading literary books either. She devoured a whole series of books called “Confessions of a …..” Which detailed the sexual adventures of this English guy in a dozen different jobs. The women kind of hooted a lot while our hero stoically satisfied them all. Not so long ago I reminded mum of this and she vehemently denied ever reading “such rubbish”. Odd. It’s not like they were hard core porn (yes, I read them too).
The point is I’ve finally learned to stop reading books I’m not enjoying. I’ve rid myself of the sad compulsion to finish everything I pick up.
But it makes me feel guilty. Last week it was Neal Stephenson’s “Anathem” and the issue is NS a bloody good writer. Who the fuck am I to put down his book as not worth reading? Apparently his book “Snow Crash” is a classic. Stephenson is, to be fair, full-on sci-fi/fantasy and I should have known with Anathem, when it had a foreword explaining the book that it was going to be tough.
It highlights to me how much more important the early pages of any book you’re reading — and of course writing — can be. They’re make-or-break content and these days few people will persevere with a book that’s not making a immediate impact. Even more important is this applies to the “sample” functions that online bookstores provide. You don’t get a second chance.
I think a lot of people used to read whole books they weren’t particularly enjoying, because a bit like TV today we’re prepared to absorb poor entertainment out of habit. Besides, not every book could be a winner and sometimes enduring a bad book opens your eyes to the better ones… Kind of.
Now it’s cut-throat. We have too many other options and too many other books to be wasting time reading anything we don’t like.
I’m not entirely sure it’s a good thing, but it has to be better than reading about sparrow pies, cutlery and hooting orgasms.
I watched a couple of films over the weekend – “The Great Gatsby” and “Gravity”. You can probably tell there was a “yours and mine” selection here between my wife Lisa and I. Still, I was kind of interested in The Great Gatsby… for about 30 minutes or so. It’s a typical Baz Luhrmann film filled with hundreds of people in crazy costumes (he’s got to keep his wife busy somehow, I suppose) and plenty of those huge, excessive party scenes. Okay, if you like that kind of thing, no problems – it’s just not my kind of movie. I’m certainly not saying it’s a bad film.
I ended up on the front porch having a beer and watching the night sky – which led to me wondering just how close Luhrmann’s film (and the other TGG movies before it) comes to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original concept for his book? As always, the iPad was within reach (sad, yes – I know) and I was surprised to discover that according to Wikipedia TGG was considered a failure. It only sold 20,000 in 1925, which considering the celebrity status of FSF was a poor showing indeed. Fitzgerald reckoned no one “got” what he was trying to do. It wasn’t until the 1940’s (Fitzgerald died in 1940 still convinced the book had failed) when TGG was freely distributed among soldiers serving overseas during WW2 that the book did one of those weird, literary things and became much-discussed, popular and eventually became ranked as one of the great American novels.
It always intrigues me how close, or not, readers come to understanding a writer’s original intent (assuming they’re no longer alive to explain it themselves). I’ve had people tell me deep, complex analyses of my novels and I’ve never had the heart to explain nothing they imagine was ever in my head. I was just trying to write a good story! So the question is, which version of The Great Gatsby became the best selling novel? Was it Fitzgerald’s imagery that we finally “got”, or some completely distorted understanding of the book that we’ve created over the decades of picking every sentence apart? In other words, if F. Scott Fitzgerald were to see Luhrmann’s film today, afterwards would he say, “Yep, that’s what I was trying to say”?
Oh – and Gravity? Well, if you’re like me and into all that space stuff with floating astronauts and the rest – you’ll love it. The effects are very good. The story is pretty much non-existent, it’s little more than a vehicle to justify the visual trickery, and has huge holes anyway (e.g. how Sandra Bullock is a kind of “guest” scientific astronaut, not one of the space shuttle crew, but at some point she’s capable of reading Russian instruction manuals on how to drive these things…), but it truly doesn’t matter with the spectacle of the vision itself. And it’s not too long. So… highly recommended.
I suspect F. Scott Fitzgerald wouldn’t have “got” Gravity at all. He wouldn’t have understood the concept of no story at all, but only a thin idea to base a film script that depends on visual effects alone. That’s crazy writer’s talk.
I had another interesting thought though. How would Fitzgerald have written TGG, if he’d stayed alive long enough to witness the Great Depression?
Hmm… that’s what happens with beer, front porches and starry nights.