December is Read A New Book Month. But new can be old, if there is a classic or celebrated work that’s been lying neglected on your bookshelf for years. Ten writers tell us about the books they have yet to finish
Celebrated modernist writer, James Joyce’s last words are believed to have been, “Does nobody understand?” The writer could well have been talking about the popular response to his books.
For years, his works, especially ‘Ulysses’ – written in stream of consciousness style – or ‘Finnegans
Wake’, have been celebrated as great works of literature. At the same time, they’ve also been picked up and put aside by readers who’ve found them too difficult to get through.
There are many books like these. We buy them eagerly, take pride in having them in our collection, sometimes quote from the few pages that we have been able to finish, but never manage to read them from cover to cover. And it happens to writers too!
A couple of books that I have never been able to finish are ‘The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy’, ‘Gentleman’ by Laurence Sterne and James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. I have dipped into Tristram Shandy once or twice, but never completed the book. Same for Ulysses, I started the book, but never got beyond the first few pages. I think perhaps the book is too abstruse.
When I was 16, a very inspirational English teacher gave us a list of 100 books that she felt everyone should read by the time he is 21. Even now, I have read only about 70 of those titles. There are holes in my classics reading. I haven’t read some works of Jane Austen’s, like ‘Mansfield Park’. I haven’t read many of [Charles] Dickens’ works or ‘Finnegans Wake’ by James Joyce or [Marcel] Proust. There are various reasons why I haven’t read the works I haven’t. ‘Finnegans Wake’ is too difficult. Dickens – there are so many books that he has written. But I feel every year, along with some of the new works, we should read some classics.
Manu S Pillai
I have not read a single Salman Rushdie novel, including ‘Midnight’s Children’. There really is no explanation for this, though in general when there is too much praise around any book, I tend to put off reading it for some time. ‘Midnight’s Children’ is an iconic book and I have had it on my shelf since my teens. And yet, somehow, I have not felt “ready” to pick it up.
The book I want to read is ‘The Tale Of Genji’ by Lady Murasaki, a Japanese work that is believed to be the first ever novel in the history of the world. I bought it 15 years ago, but haven’t read it yet. I recently managed to finish reading ‘The Pillow Book’ (by Sei Shonagon and translated to English by Ivan Morris), an account of Japanese court life in the 11th century, but for many years I would pick it up now and then, but not be able to complete it. The book required engagement, about two-three weeks of uninterrupted reading, but I hadn’t been able to give it more than five-six days in the past. Usually, when there is a book like this, that requires time and engagement, my sister and I divide it into sections and read it out to each other. That’s how we finished ‘Proust’.
The book I have put off reading in its entirety is Bharat Muni’s ‘Natyasastra’. There is a definitive English translation by Adya Rangacharya but I never could read and understand all 36 chapters. I did a course on Rasa Theory where it was referred to. My dance gurus quoted from it. I quote from it, especially the famous line on the unity on vibhava, anubhava, and vyabhichari bhava, resulting in Rasa. I have no excuse for not having read the whole treatise. Being a theatre writer and director, it is shameful!
I bought ‘The History of the Decline and Fall Of The Roman Empire’ by Edward Gibbon some 30-40 years ago but have not been able to finish it. Then there is Michel Foucault’s ‘The History Of Sexuality’, all three volumes of it, which I have had in my collection for about 20 years; it is packed with so much information and insights, it requires time and consistent reading. Then there are the three volumes of ‘The Cold War 1945-1991’ edited by Benjamin Frankel. It’s a collection of articles and documents. But the book is very long. The first volume itself has some 500-odd pages…
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
For me to read a book, it has to catch me in the first few chapters. Take the first line of Jane Austen’s ‘Pride And Prejudice’ for example; it immediately catches your attention. Another example of a great opening line is in Manju Kapur’s ‘A Married Woman’. The other thing that gets me interested is if the premise of the story makes me curious, as in ‘The Girl On The Train’. When neither of these two happen, I am unable to finish the book and there are several examples of this. The first book that comes to mind is Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’. It’s really difficult to go beyond the first 20 pages. ‘Midnight’s Children’ also. Then there’s ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ by David Mitchell. The book is so beautifully produced, but it is so intimidating, about 400-500-odd pages. I have had the book for about 10 years. I sometimes take it out and look at it, but I have never read it. Ditto for Arundhati Roy’s ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’. I have also not read George RR Martin’s ‘A Game of Thrones’. I have seen Season I of the show, and the dragon inspired me to write ‘Jwala Kumar And The Gift of Fire’.
R Raj Rao
As a Salman Rushdie fan, I always wanted to read his controversial novel ‘The Satanic Verses’, which earned him a fatwa from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini and sent him into exile. But I was never able to finish it. The novel’s denseness and absence of linear narration – with a clear beginning, middle and end – that hampered my enjoyment and prevented me from completing it. One has to keep going back and forth to make sense of the story—if at all the book can be said to have a story.
Because of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) and the JLF editions, I always have piles of books sent to me from around the world. I tend to dip in selectively, reading them in my own speed read method – through the beginning , to the end and then back to the middle. When I was in college, decades ago, studying English literature, I fell in love with ‘Marcel Proust and Remembrance Of Things Past’ – translated by CK Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin – which later appeared in a revised translation by DJ Enright as ‘In Search Of Lost Time’. The only problem was that I could never get beyond half way through the first volume of ‘Swann’s Way’. Even as the seven volumes reproached me from my tiny bookshelf, I would boast about reading Proust in a superior and knowledgeable way that was in retrospect completely unjustified.
Palash Krishna Mehrotra
Whenever lists like these are compiled, there’s an evergreen winner: James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. Another book I possess, but won’t read is Robert Musil’s three- volume ‘The Man Without Qualities’. But the book that I haven’t read and will this year has to be Irwin Allan Sealy’s ‘The Trotter-Nama’. Its thickness is forbidding; but I have also saved it up – I’ve been consuming other Sealys in the meanwhile.