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My Secret Shame: Five Fantastic Books I Just Can’t Finish

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Alison Peters

Staff Writer

Alison Peters surrounds herself with books, green things, animals and love. A Creative Writing M.F.A. holder with a day job that shall not be named, Alison is also working on a Masters in Library and Information Science. Currently cohabitating with her partner in the Northernmost outpost of San Francisco’s East Bay, she spends her spare time exercising her big dog so he won’t get annoyed with her, reading everything she can get her hands on, and then writing about it all. If you’re ever interested in discussing Harry Potter, Alison re-reads the series at least once a year, so drop her a line.

It’s my dirty little reader’s shame, and I need to talk about it. I start books with every intention of reading till the bitter end, but some I just can’t finish.

I have lots of books, arranged specifically to my reading tastes: Favorites, More Favorites, YA Favorites, Favorite Series, etc – just stacks and stacks of the best books ever. And then there is the TBD shelf, a really neat floating stack that contains all the books I need to read, a sad little group that I started but never finished.

Buried in that stack – like Harry Potter’s Half-Blood Prince potions textbook in the Room of Requirement – are five books that are pretty much universally loved, critically acclaimed, and I just can’t make my way through them.  (YES THERE ARE WAY MORE THAN FIVE THAT I CAN’T FINISH, BUT I LIKE THAT NUMBER.)

The Forgotten Five are:

If On A Winter’s Night A TravelerFive Books I Can't Finish: if on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino.

Have you read this book, or heard of it? When I first picked it up, simply because I like Calvino, I had no idea what I was in store for. I started to suspect something out of the ordinary was up when the first chapter invites me, as reader, to sit back, relax, wipe my mind of preconceived ideas about Calvino and books in general, and just enjoy the ride. Hummm….

If On A Winter’s Night starts on a winter’s night and the reader (always referred to in the first person as “I”) is reading a book at a dark train station. You’re introduced to a few shady characters who seem ripe to be reintroduced later, when the time is right. Customers at a bar converse and watch passerby. Mysterious things are going on – there is a suitcase, a doctor and a madam, and a shadowy organization that might be controlling all of the mundane action.

And then chapter two drops, and you realize that you (I, reading the book) are being told that there are pages missing in the book you’re reading, and so I rushes to the store, trying to find an in-tact copy to finish the story which is just beginning to mesmerize…I gets the book, but soon realizes there has been another mistake and that this book is starting off on a whole new story. I rush back to the bookstore to get the correct copy this time…

And on and on and on and on. The stories keep changing, the book is never complete, the action interrupted right when it’s getting good. My first thought was – brilliant! Take all the stories you couldn’t finish and compile them into one book to keep the reader on their toes. After a few more chapters my thought was – ugh! Where is the doctor! What happened to the suitcase! Who is I???

The book is described as an “exhilarating interactive novel…a miraculous vehicle for encountering previously unheard-of imaginative wonders.” I’m simply perplexed, and confused, and want my one story – any one story – from beginning to end.

If you’ve read this book and would like to drop me a spoiler – should I continue?? Will I be glad I did??? I’d happily read your take.

Five Fantastic Books I Can't Finish: The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot DiazThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.

There’s nothing to not love about Junot Diaz, or this book, so I’m not sure what my problem is here. You’ve got culture and history by way of contemporary storytelling; fuku, curses from Africa unleashed by the arrival of Europeans on Hispaniola, “real shit” an everyday person could believe in; American dreams and a hero in the form of one fat, nerdy Dominican boy in Jersey with big dreams of beautiful women.

I’ve read the reviews, heard the praises (lots by Book Riot friends, natch) – brief and wondrous it may be – I just can’t finish it.

Infinite JestFive Books I Can't Finish: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace by David Foster Wallace.

Oh so ripe for infinite jokes about the infinite length of this book…I picked up Infinite Jest years and years ago during a Foster Wallace readathon event, and, along with my best friend, we made up an excellent reading plan to finish the bestselling, almost-1000 page, small-fonted book by summer’s end.

My makeshift bookmark, the receipt from when I bought the book, is faded almost to white but proclaims that I found it at one of my old favorite Oakland Barnes & Nobles, today torn down and replaced with an indoor bocce ball joint – that’s how long it’s been, the entire city has seen a sea change since I first started this reading quest –  the bookmark tells its own story, resting quietly on page 66, my line of demarcation.

I have no idea what this book is about, why it’s beloved, what I aimed to get from it. I have to state for the record that I have no problem reading long books, which was probably why this readathon appealed to me – Russian novelists and never ending series are just about the best reads in the world imho – so it’s not the length. I’m just not that into it, no matter how hard I try. The book is my own private infinity inside jest with my best friend, when, every now and then we text each other – wanna try again? (Answer: maybe next year.)

brown girl dreamingFive Books I Can't Finish: brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson by Jacqueline Woodson.

Lest you think it’s really a psychological thing and I just can’t finish books written by guys – nope. I’ve written about my love for this book, and the parts I have read I really I do love, but I haven’t been able to sit down finish Woodson’s memoir in verse about growing up between the North and South, Jim Crow and civil rights, black and white, never quite fitting in but always, always reading and writing.

It’s the shared memoir of brown girls everywhere, no matter time or place, and maybe it’s for that reason that I put it down just when it gets deep, preferring to retreat and not think about how far we’ve come and how fucked up life still is for people of color. It’s not pretty, it’s not admirable, but that’s my truth.

Five Books I Can't Finish: A Storm of Swords by George R.R. MartinA Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin.

I will tell you why I stopped midway through book three of the Song of Ice and Fire series in three little tiny words that GoT fans everywhere can relate to: The Red Wedding.

See, I was determined to read the books before starting the tv series (way, way behind, I know) and I had all sorts of predictions about who was involved in this infamous bloody event and how it went down, and I really thought I was on the right path. Turns out I was very, very wrong, and the horror that was the actual Red Wedding stopped my reading blood cold and I bowed out of the series.

I have to admit that I’m encouraged to continue by the spoilers that seem to be everywhere: I know who’s still alive, even if I don’t know what allegiance they pledge, who they’re married to, if they’re ruling or in rotting in a dungeon….So this one is possibly the most likely to be read in the bunch.

But clearly I need some motivation, a reader’s kick in the ass, or to at least know I’m not alone. If you can’t finish books, what are they?