Books we haven’t read: Time to turn the page?
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.
Ulysses is among the five most abandoned classics, according to a Goodreads infographic, posted on the books recommendations site in 2013. A list of ‘Really, Really Difficult Books’ created by a member on the same site in 2009 (members can vote on the books in the list, add to it and rate the books as ‘want to read’, ‘currently reading’ and ‘read’) includes most of Joyce’s works. This doesn’t come as a surprise. After all, fellow writer and one of his contemporaries, Virginia Woolf, after reading Ulysses, apparently wrote in a letter, “Never did any book so bore me”.
Of course, many of Woolf’s own works, such as Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse, are also on the Goodreads ‘Difficult Books’ list, along with works of Marcel Proust, TS Eliot, William Faulkner, Jean-Paul Sartre, Sigmund Freud and others. Though there are some bestsellers on the list (Fifty Shades Of Grey, for example and The Twilight Saga), most of the titles are classics or books that are a part of recommended reading for all literature lovers. But as writer Ruskin Bond says, “Sometimes we feel we should read a book, but it creates barriers, either by being too abstruse or too experimental”.
Salman Rushdie is another such writer. His Midnight’s Children received the Booker Prize in 1981, the Booker of Bookers in 1993 and the Best of Booker in 2008. In 2019, he made it to the Booker shortlist for his recent work, Quichotte. And his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, is not just controversial, but in equal measure celebrated and unread.
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. It happens to writers too! As we enter December, the Read A New Book Month (though some celebrate it in September, isn’t winter better for curling up with a book?), HT talks to writers about the books they have not read till now, but hope to, some day soon.
Recent work: Words From My Window
I now read for pleasure, not to improve my mind. But my interests are wide ranging. I read a lot of old favourites, classics, detective fiction, crime fiction, biographies, history (if it is written in a readable manner)… I don’t read literary novels much any more. 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.
Recent Work: The Anarchy
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 the titles on that list. There are holes in my classics reading. I haven’t read some works of Jane Austen’s, such as Mansfield Park. I haven’t read many of [Charles] Dickens’ works – A Tale of Two Cities, for example. I haven’t read Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. I haven’t read much of the French classics... I have read [Gustave] Flaubert’s short stories, but not his novels. I haven’t read much of [Marcel] Proust. In comparison, my reading of the Russian classics is more complete. 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. I have read the usual ones, like Oliver Twist, and Bleak House is my favourite Dickens book, but I haven’t read all his works. But I feel every year, along with some of the new works, we should read some classics. So I am hoping to catch up on some of the books I have missed out on.
Manu S Pillai
Recent Work: The Courtesan, The Mahatma & The Italian Brahmin
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 and start turning the pages. The time will, however, come.
Recent Work: Anya And Her Baby Brother
The book I want to read and haven’t read yet 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 Shōnagon 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.
Recent Work: Me And My Plays
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!
Recent Work: A Secret History Of Compassion
I bought The History of the Decline and Fall Of The Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon some 30-40 years ago. I have read it on and off, but not been able to finish the book; it is my dream to do so some day. 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. The Cold War has affected the world for so many years. But the book is very long. The first volume itself has some 500-odd pages…
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
Recent work: My Father’s Garden
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 is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”; it immediately catches your attention. Another example of a great opening line is in Manju Kapur’s A Married Woman , “Astha was brought up properly, as befits a woman with large supplements of fear.” 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. I saw the film adaptation first and it didn’t hold my attention and probably that added to why I never even flipped through the book. 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 and I still sometimes take it out and look at it, but I have never read it. Ditto for Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – it’s beautifully produced, but I haven’t read it. 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 my book for children Jwala Kumar And The Gift of Fire.
R Raj Rao
Recent Work: Madam, Give Me My Sex
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. Though India banned the novel before any other country in the world, I managed to get hold of a smuggled copy of it soon after it was published. It was my prized possession that I made sure not to take out of my study for fear of repercussions. But I boasted about it all right. Many asked me to lend them my copy after I had finished reading it. But this I certainly wasn’t going to do. There was every possibility of the borrower disappearing with my book. I started reading The Satanic Verses as soon as I acquired it. But was never able to finish it. My bookmark is stuck at the end of Section III, on page 200, with another six sections yet to be read. In retrospect, I realise that it is 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. It certainly isn’t an easy read. 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. I was drawn to the hype that The Satanic Verses generated, with Britain severing its ties with Iran on account of a single book. But the book lacked that unputdownable quality that could have kept me glued to it. Today it sits in my bookshelves, waiting to be pulled out some day.
Recent Work: Finding Radha: The Quest for Love
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, reading and rereading the luminous prose. Even as the seven volumes reproached me from the tiny bookshelf in my bedroom, I would boast about reading Proust in a superior and knowledgeable way that was in retrospect completely unjustified. And I still haven’t read beyond halfway through volume one! Some day!
Palash Krishna Mehrotra
Recent Work: The Butterfly Generation
Whenever lists like these are compiled, there’s an evergreen winner: James Joyce’s Ulysses. Many have failed to make the giant leap from A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man and Dubliners to the great good Uly. I’m part of their ranks. In fact, I just looked in my shelves and Ulysses seems to have walked away of its own accord. It never even took my permission. Another book I possess, but won’t read is Robert Musil’s three- volume The Man Without Qualities. This is a book intellectuals rave about...that has the same effect on me that Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd fans have: I feel the artist is in the good hands of believers; I can concentrate on more ‘lonely’ neglected writers who deserve a reader. 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; the saga of the Trotters is something one hides in one’s bank vault for a rainy day. And what I really enjoy reading are the collected stories of Lucia Berlin, Eudora Welty, Alasdair Gray and Isaac Babel. As Mavis Gallant said: ‘Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.’
Photo of Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar by Satabdi Mishra/Walking BookFairs. Photo of Paul Zacharia courtesy the writer. Photos of all other writers from Hindustan Times archives and Getty Images.