by Pa Rock
Anyone who knows me well can appreciate that I have seldom started a book that I could not or would not finish. Reading is almost a contractual obligation: what is started, must be finished. But there have been a few books from which I have just had to walk away.
I started thinking about the books that defeated me yesterday after enjoying Les Miserables at the theatre. The novel that the play was based on, Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, was one of those books that I was never able to finish. It has been many years ago that I fought my way past the first hundred pages or so, only to decide that it was just too sad for my tastes. Perhaps, having matured by a couple of decades (me - not the book), it is time that I picked it back up and tried again.
Another book that defeated me was Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, a German tale of a young man fresh out of the university who goes up a mountain to visit his cousin residing in a tuberculosis hospital. While visiting the cousin, the hero, Castrop, becomes infected with the dreaded disease himself and has to be admitted to the facility for a prolonged stay. I have no idea whether he survived tuberculosis or not, because I set the book down one evening and never got back to it. Please don't tell me how it ends, because I may get back to it also.
While those first two easily qualified as literature by the pound, a third book that I couldn't finish was fairly brief by comparison. That book, Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, was one of the most graphically anti-war novels ever written. It came out in 1938 and was undoubtedly a major factor in Trumbo being blacklisted during the McCarthy era. In fact, the book itself was censored during World War II. Johnny is the narrator, and he awakens in a hospital after falling in battle in World War I. At first Johnny doesn't know where he is or what is going on, because he is blind and can't speak. He slowly discovers that he has no arms or legs. I set the book aside when I got to the part about him realizing that the rats were eating at his bandages during the night when the hospital attendants were gone. Johnny Got His Gun is too important not to be read, and I will definitely get back to it.
And when I say that I will try again to read these important works of literature, I mean it. Another book that challenged me for years was Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I gave up on it twice because the characters and situations were just too bizarre to follow coherently, but the third time was a charm. When I began the third reading I was determined that I would read every page regardless of how hard it was to follow - and at some point toward the end of the book it all started to come together and make sense. Catch-22 and I will probably do battle again!
Reading a particular book may be a matter of timing. When the time is right, the book will reveal itself to to the patient reader.