In the past few weeks I’ve talked a lot about the books on my “to read” list, and about the genres of YA and Epic Fantasy (here, here, here, here and here) and frequently the conversation in the comments has turned to books that weren’t worth finishing reading.
I, like many readers and other writers, am constantly strapped for time. There’s a lot going on, between being a day-job warrior, a superhero father, a debonaire husband, and a fantastically inspired writer. Amidst all that, I also like to read. But I just don’t have time for books that aren’t delivering something of value to me.
What that value is might be negotiable and variable. Usually it’s some form of enjoyment or entertainment. But I also appreciate the use of beautiful language, engaging plot, interesting characters, and other such accoutrements of fine writing – all of which can be subcomponents of “enjoyment” for my purposes. Then there’s the value of informative qualities, education, experiencing something new, and so on which good writing can also be. Long story short, if a book isn’t doing several of these things for me, I probably don’t have time for it.
So, I thought it might be instructive, as a writer and as a reader, to go over all the books I’ve put down – the books I stopped reading, for whatever reason, and haven’t yet finished reading.
For a long while before I started this, I was under the impression that I had only ever put down two books, and only truly despised one other besides (one which I was compelled to finish, nonetheless). But upon further introspection on this topic I realized that I had understated the number of books I put down. I’m going to talk about each of these books. First, the book I despised, then the two books I previously remembered putting down, then two more books that I later realized I had, in fact, put down.
In much of what follows you’ll find snarkiness as I attempt to describe the reasoning behind my inability to finish each of these books.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
A Separate Peace probably has the distinction of being the single worst book I have ever had the displeasure of reading through, from beginning to end. With a protagonist only barely more likeable than that of Albert Camus’s depressing The Stranger/L’Étranger it was also infinitely more boring. While Camus’s generally well-regarded book (I didn’t enjoy it much, either) was laden with painful existential ennui, Knowles’s book is laden with the boring existential ennui. The entire affair feels pointless, and the main character never really seems to come to a true understanding of himself. At the end of the day, there was no one to latch onto, no one to like in this story. The characters were all equally offensive to me as either boring, boorish, or incompetent.
The only reason I even finished A Separate Peace was because it was required: I was a High School student, and this was an assignment, and I was a very dutiful student. But my life is diminished and lessened for having read this book, and I can never get that time back.
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
I really, really wanted to enjoy Les Misérables. And I did enjoy it – as a stage play or a musical or a movie. But the book is unreadable. I got about halfway through Les Misérables before giving up irrevocably. Whenever I talk about the book, I always mention one scene, in particular, as emblamatic of the overarching problem with this book: some of you will recall (if you’ve seen the movies or musical) the scene in which the protagonist, Jean Valjean, newly released from a nineteen-year prison sentence – imposed, essentially, for having stolen a loaf of bread to feed his family – sits along a mostly empty highway brooding darkly after a bizarre encounter with a nearby bishop. Then an innocent young boy happens by, flipping a coin. It rolls toward Jean Valjean, who steals the coin. But before this fairly crucial plot point can unwind, the reader is treated to a multi-page exposition on the results of a certain battle during the Napoleononic Wars which took place many years before and whose only connection to the present narrative was that said battle happened to take place in the same field in which Valjean commits the deed that dogs him for the rest of the novel.
This happens fairly early in the book. But this overindulgence in pointless exposition upon pointless exposition pads the book so thickly that it is probably two or three times longer than it would need to be to tell the same story far more powerfully and succinctly. In fact – that’s just what the musical and other adaptations of the story do: they cut the pages of mind-numbingly pointless exposition and cut right to the heart of what is, ultimately, a very riveting story.
For a long time, I thought I would make another try and reading Hugo’s acclaimed novel. But, eventually I realized that life was too short to waste it on endless pages of expository brain-dumping: even if it’s classic expository brain-dumping. I’d managed to explore the story of Les Misérables in other forms, and that was enough for me.
The Redemption of Althalus by David & Leah Eddings
The previous two books were not in my favored genres. But this book was one of my biggest disappointments. I’d read and enjoyed David Eddings’s “The Belgariad” and “The Mallorean” series when I was younger. (With the specific caveat that I found the midpoint novel of “The Belgariad” – Magician’s Gambit – had a resolution that was unrealistic and predicated on a nonsensical, illogical, and out-of-character action by the primary antagonist of the book. I did feel, however, that the series recovered from this otherwise egregious mistake.) I received The Redemption of Althalus as a gift, something to read while I was laid up with an illness some years back. Contrary to my earlier, mostly-positive experiences with Eddings’s work, however, I found the book to be boring and trite. This review on Amazon, in fact, accurately captures my impressions of the book.
The problem, as it turns out, is twofold. First: the characters are each essentially gender-swapped clones of each other. They all share the exact same “ironic” and trite sense of humor. They interact according to painful gender stereotypes. In effect, they are two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs. Secondly: the plot is unoriginal and uninspired. We are never truly made to fear for the heroes: after all, they possess certain powers that, in effect, make them invincible. It’s hard to fear for the fates of characters who are functionally invincible. Not that we would care in the first place, considering the insurmountable difficulties of the first problem.
I got about halfway through this book, at which point I flipped to the very end, read a couple more pages to confirm that yes! the good guys win, and then closed it never to open it again. It sits even now in a pile to be donated to some unsuspecting library, but I can’t even summon enough give-a-care about this sad, sorry novel to actually do anything with the book. It’s out of sight, and out of mind, unless I want to talk about an unsuccessful and yet mysteriously supposedly-good-enough-to-get-published example of Epic Fantasy. By all accounts, this book is substantially worse than the previous two books on this list. The first at least can adhere to the pretension of being “literary” and therefore “artistic” and the second can claim the appellation of “classic”. This book is neither.
The Soul of the Fire by Terry Goodkind
I had never counted The Soul of the Fire among the list of books I hadn’t finished because, for many years, I honestly believed I had the intention of going back and finishing the book. But I’ve made a separate peace (did you see what I did there?) with the fact that Terry Goodkind’s “Sword of Truth” series is, in fact, mostly composed of execrable garbage. But I successfully fooled myself into believing, for many years, that they were good.
This misconception stems from the first book, Wizard’s First Rule, which actually was pretty good. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I thought the ending was both uplifting and a clever inversion of expectations based on the magic system Goodkind had invented. It isn’t a great novel, but I thought it was good, and I don’t regret that I enjoyed it. The problem is, after this one good example, it quickly becomes clear that Goodkind had no plan, whatsoever, for the rest of the series. Wizard’s First Rule ends with a fully-resolved conflict, and no substantially useful loose threads from which to weave an ongoing tale. Each subsequent book, however, introduces newly-contrived elements that, in an inverse of Chekhov’s Gun, are not suggested by earlier books. New Ultimate-Big-Bads emerge, each ridiculously more Ultimately Bigger And Badder than the last. New magic systems are introduced. New rules on the old magic system. Each book takes pains to contradict whatever was good or enjoyable about the previous books. And throughout there is plenty of world-class plagiarism from better-planned and better-plotted novels (notably from Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series.) Everything feels tacked on as an afterthought, haphazard, and unplanned.
What really did it for me, in retrospect, was the introduction of the primary plot problem of The Soul of the Fire. When we are introduced to the driving plot Macguffin, I-am-not-making-this-up, we discover it involves an evil, magical Death-Chicken. Yes. The Death-Chicken is killing people with it’s evil, chickeny Death-Stare. And it just happens to be killing relatively innocent Noble Savages that our not-a-Noble-Savage, Great-White-Hero has adopted as his own people. Several chapters are given to discovering the mystery of the Death-Chicken and the pursuit of said Death-Chicken. In actuality, the Death-Chicken is possessed by the evil Chimes. Calling something by the name of a sonorous and pleasantly-melodic musical instrument doesn’t strike much more fear into my heart than making it an evil, soul-sucking chicken. (Seriously… didn’t Goodkind know that chickens are, by their very nature, humorous?) What’s more… while theoretically the Chimes were introduced in the prior book, they weren’t thoroughly discussed – instead, this book attempts to link them to what was purportedly a subplot that lead to a relatively benign resolution to the main plot of that book. But guess what? The subplot? Not resolved. And also, saving the hero’s life in the last book has released these Chimes in this book, and now they’ve mutated into a Death-Chicken.
In retrospect, after having realized that I did, in fact, put this series down – never to pick it up again – a long time ago, I am very grateful that I stopped when I did. More recently, as I was reading up on the series to refresh my memory and gain a better understanding of why I stopped reading, I discovered that in the immediately following book in the series, called Faith of the Fallen, Terry Goodkind falls down a bizarre Ayn Rand-worshiping rabbit hole. In my later years I’ve developed a healthy disregard for the morally and ethically bankrupt, sociopathic, and logically inconsistent philosophy that Ayn Rand developed and which today is called “Objectivism”. At the time, I wasn’t well-acquainted with Objectivism, but after having become more fully acquainted with that puerile philosophy, I am glad that I avoided being sucked into it surreptitiously in the name of Epic Fantasy.
Added to all that, upon reading further it has become apparent to me that the author is a bit of a… how shall we say… a synonym for a donkey. For example, consider this interview, in which the author (whose stories include magic, dragons, wizards, rural orphaned heroes who are secretly the lost heir to a great kingdom, magic swords, dark lords, etc.) claims that he doesn’t write “fantasy” and then goes on a delusional rant about how crappy fantasy books are. When called out on the similarities between his books and the Wheel of Time by one questioner in the interview, he insults the questioner. This is apparently not the only time he has insulted his readers.
For these reasons, and despite the fact that I truly did enjoy the first book, I don’t regret having put down The Soul of the Fire and not picking it up again.
Eragon by Christopher Paolini
I had always intended to read Eragon. I mean, there had to be a reason it was so successful. And in the wake of the success of Harry Potter, I was keen to experience other high-quality YA Epic Fantasies. Eragon promised to fit the bill. The movie was pretty dull and pointless, but I try not to hold a bad film execution against a book.
Now, in all fairness to Eragon, it’s not exactly in the same class as the rest of these books. A part of me does still intend to pick them up and read it again and finish it. Dear Wife has thoroughly enjoyed the series. And Eragon isn’t terrible in the same way that The Redemption of Althalus or The Soul of the Fire were.
But, if I’m honest with myself, neither is it very good.
I started reading Eragon when the most recent “Inheritance” book by Paolini (Brisingr back in 2008) came out. Dear Wife checked that out from the Library and I got Eragon. Dear Wife managed to finish Brisingr before returning it to the Library. But I couldn’t finish Eragon. My excuse, at the time, was that I was then in class, in my MBA, and didn’t have time to read. Which is more-or-less true. It took me forever to read both The Gathering Storm and The Towers of Midnight, two books I was highly excited about and enjoyed thoroughly. But the fact is, Eragon is mediocre. And also more than a little derivative.
It’s been more than a year now since I put Eragon down, and I haven’t really felt the longing to finish it that I hoped for. I do somehow hope that I’ll be able to find the time and will to finish the book. But from the here-and-now… I don’t foresee the day when I will. I have other books that I’m much more excited about, and I expect to be new, and interesting, and entertaining, and somewhat better than mediocre.
Last of all, there is one more book that I put down unfinished – but it was so unremarkable that I no longer even remember its name, and I’m not even 100% sure of the author. I believe it was by Dean Koontz, though in my head I get all the hyper-prolific workaday serial-killer thriller authors confused, and they’re kind of all Dean Koontz. I started (and never finished) reading it sometime between 2001 and 2004. It had a bright yellow dust-jacket, and as I recall a single-word title. The protagonist was getting psychiatric help for a debilitating fear of sharp, pointy objects. And of course there was a serial killer/stalker out to get her. And that’s about it. I’ve found that all thrillers of this type read the same to me… which is why I couldn’t finish this particular book, and now can no longer remember it with any specificity.
So, I’ve shown you mine. How about you? What books (if you haven’t shared already) did you put down, and why?