Great books never read…

Great books never read…

SEPT 6 — It was yet another lunch at the strangely-named “Ibu Nasi Kandar” restaurant near our office. (They don’t serve nasi kandar and there is nobody working there who looks like they are anybody’s ibu.)

We were just chatting about this, that and the other when the talk veered towards books. Suddenly Justin said, “I wasted my life reading Nineteen Eighty-Four.” It’s not often you hear that about anything written by George Orwell so we questioned him: Why? What was it you hated?

He answered without hesitation: Bad writing.

“Ahh, but did you finish it?”

“Yes, I am ashamed to say I was pretentious enough to slog through it,” he replied. Although I loved Nineteen Eighty-Four, his wonderful candour made me realise there have been “great books” I hated as well.

In fact, I never even finished reading them. Top of my list is Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. It was prescribed reading in my second year of university and I fell in love with the first line of Chapter One: Call me Ishmael.

But everything went quickly downhill from there. I could not wrap my mind around the many, many detours away from the main narrative thread about Ahab and his hunt for Moby Dick.

I think more than two thirds of the book is devoted to facts about whales, whaling, sailing and so on and so forth. While I can appreciate that Melville broke literary boundaries by incorporating realism into the story, it was just too boring for me. I never finished the book.

Yes, it defeated me. A literature student. Failed. But that was not the only great book I gave up on. My sister and I loved the BBC serialisation of “War and Peace” which somehow made its way to our TV.

There we were, two girls growing up in Ipoh and falling in love with Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel watching the TV series. Years later, I thought I’d read the book. Couldn’t get past the first few chapters. Sigh.

My sister even gave me another of his books for my birthday: Anna Karenina. Never finished that either. I admit it, I am a wimp. The Russian master is not for me. Neither is his countryman Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Once, when a friend of mine confessed that reading Crime and Punishment changed his life, I could only hang my head in shame. Inside.

I have read and enjoyed many other challenging books, of course. Books which puzzled me, made me rethink my idea of how stories can be told, and bowled me over with their artistic stylings.

William Faulkner is one of those writers. His “Light In August” was something I had to read as a student. I thought then that the writing was dense, flabby and just plain irritating. Why couldn’t he be like my favourite writer Ernest Hemingway with his spare, stark and muscular prose style?

Many years after graduation, I picked up “Light In August” again. And fell in love. The words were lyrical and the imagery evoked… perfect. I finally got it. I finally understood and felt the words.

It was then that it struck me: we bring to a book the joy, pain and frustration of what went on in our lives before we came to read the book. It is through that experience that we see and feel the words written by the author.

So when I first read “Light In August”, I had not lived enough to know what Faulkner was writing about. Now isn’t that just amazing? But I know I will not be able to get Melville, Tolstoy and the many other writers who defeated me then… even if I read them now.

Anthony Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange” also comes to mind in that category. I finished that book but never understood why people made such a fuss about it. Sure, the story of Alex DeLarge who loves classical music and rape and ultra-violence was disturbing and foretold a future which is… well, now here… but did he have to write it all in that fractured “language”?

Some books I am willing to go back and try again but not those. And you know what, it’s okay. I realised quite a while back that we don’t all have to love the so-called great books or finish reading the classics.

Life’s too short. We should just read what we love. If you can’t get past the first few pages, give it up and move on. Still, I would like to change Justin’s mind about Orwell. Maybe I will get him “Animal Farm” or “Down and Out in Paris and London”.

Great books never read… and probably never will , Malaysian Insider

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