Eight books I’ll never read

Call me a masochist, a philistine, willfully depriving myself of some of world literature’s masterworks. 

I beg to differ. I’ve read wads of wonderful books and have countless more to go, including those which I call my hope-to books, meaning I hope to get around to them in this lifetime: “Don Quixote,” “Middlemarch,” “War and Peace,” “The Portrait of a Lady,” and to finally finish “The Brothers Karamazov” and Don DeLillo’s “Underworld.”

The following eight novels are books I’ve either attempted to read and put down with disappointment or volumes I simply know I won’t find the time for because I’m pretty sure I’ll banish them, deflated, demanding my many reading hours back. In no order:

“Remembrance of Things Past” (1913-1927). And so our hero launches a legendary journey through his past with one bite of a tea-soaked madeleine, a journey that seems, for thousands of pages, unstoppable. Marcel Proust’s seven-volume novel puts the “ick” in epic, warding off the casual reader who’d rather not commit eons to a single novel. I wish I could do it. I started volume one, “Swann’s Way,” but its famed vortex didn’t suck me in. I took a bite of a milk-soaked Oreo, but it didn’t have the same effect.


“Ulysses” (1922). The most obvious book avoided by literary wussies, the Everest of difficult fiction, which has scuttled so many foolish takers. I’ve dipped into its brambled pages and got instantly lost and tangled in the impregnable modernist foliage. More trouble than it’s worth. While we’re at it, let’s add Joyce’s indecipherable “Finnegans Wake” (1939), another provocation for brawny brains and paragons of patience I will never read.


“Infinite Jest” (1996). 1,088 pages of post-modern tomfoolery and intellectual acrobatics, David Foster Wallace’s cult classic daunts and taunts. Not many conquer Wallace’s brilliant, monster challenge to hip, erudite readers, with its formal elasticity, cerebral satire, and devastating commentaries on everything from television to tennis. Another behemoth that I’m afraid I can’t swallow. (Though I relish his non-fiction. Does that count?) 


 “The Goldfinch” (2015). Adult fiction that reads like children’s literature, Donna Tartt’s old-fashioned opus is clammily contrived and wears a twee Dickensian frilliness. (It also, mystifyingly, won a Pulitzer.) I read almost half of its 976 pages, waiting for the story to grow muscle, to grow up. It’s a squishy coming-of-age tale so banal it’s hard to believe. If it was a movie, Chris Columbus would direct. (Actually, John Crowley, of “Brooklyn” fame, is directing the film. What are you going to do?)


“Moby-Dick” (1851). I read about a fifth of Melville’s whale tale, and after a peppy start, alive with humor and heart and humanity, the slog began. I’ve heard you must muscle through, machete swinging through the anesthetizing filler and maddening digressions, and a grand story will emerge. But it’s simply too hard to focus on a crowded page when your eyes are so glazed over. 


“Pride and Prejudice” (1813). I wrote the following here last summer: “I can’t do Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ I’ve tried to read it three times, and each time, at around page 20, I crinkle my nose, toss my head back, issue a fluttering sigh, then slap the book shut. Slap. Pinched and prissy, the prose is like flossy streamers of chirp and chatter, candied and precious and irritating.” Hmm, I’ll stand by that.


“Gravity’s Rainbow” (1973). I’ve read some of Thomas Pynchon’s other novels and I am no fan. Here’s how a site described the author’s extravagant, fireworks-shooting, 760-page magnum opus: “Quantum mechanics, mass extinction, speculative metaphysics — heavy stuff. It doesn’t help that Pynchon’s style is free-flowing and flashback-heavy. This has been called the definitive postmodern novel.” I respectfully pass.


Anything by Charles Dickens (lived 1812-1870). I delighted reading “A Christmas Carol” as a child, but since then my relationship with the granddaddy of Victorian fiction has been a frustrating failure. Every so often I will try again to read one of his bloated novels — I picked up “A Tale of Two Cities” three times before I tossed it — but they’re so fussy, so verbose, so cutesy, even, with all those belabored character names. The books aren’t light. They go down like molasses: cloying, thick and sticky.


There’s no pride in my Jane Austen prejudice


I can’t do Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” I’ve tried to read it three times, and each time, at around page 20, I crinkle my nose, toss my head back, issue a fluttering sigh, then slap the book shut. Slap.

Pinched and prissy, the prose is like flossy streamers of chirp and chatter, candied and precious and irritating. I can’t comment much further since I haven’t cut a very long swath through the novel, which turned 204 this year. That’s endurance: Readers still love this book, along with other unimpeachable Austen classics, from “Persuasion” to “Emma.” She retains the mantle of literary goddess, and to cross her is blasphemy.


I’m not buying it. Neither are a lot of other readers, individuals far more distinguished than me. Charlotte Brontë, Emerson, Woolf, Mark Twain, Stephen King and Lee Child are but a few with allergies to those charming Austen tropes of money-lust, snobby class divisions, giggling and gossip, society fetes, courting and coupling, husband-hunting and, of course, life’s gilded apotheosis, heavenly nuptials.

“The one problem in the mind of (Austen),” wrote Emerson, “is marriageableness. All that interests any character introduced is: Has he or she the money to marry with, and conditions, conforming? … Never was life so narrow … Suicide is more respectable.”

I know more than I let on about Austen’s work, via literature, criticism and film. What grates is a little of the “Downton Abbey”-syndrome inflicting her work and her world, the unctuous materialism, the superficial scope of humanity, the tea-sipping, pursed-lip superciliousness. Henry James dubbed Austen’s heroines “she-Philistines,” which will be called misogynistic, namely for an author whose work is so exhaustively feminist. (I’m torn on that one. Send comments with the subject line “Jerk.”)

I must be fair. My affection for 19th-century English literature is finite. This will reveal scandalous volumes about my taste for it: I cannot get through Dickens, despite valiant essays. I’ve cracked “A Tale of Two Cities” three times — fail. Both “Great Expectations” and “David Copperfield” parried my great expectations. His books are cluttered, fancy and fussy. Everything reads like a hyper, heightened children’s tale, which is why as a third-grader I so adored “A Christmas Carol.” (Donna Tartt’s cloying “The Goldfinch,” supposedly an adult novel, was so redolent of Dickens I had to put it down halfway through. My teeth hurt.)


When it comes to 19th-century novels, I pledge fealty to Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” and “Sentimental Education,” Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” There are others, but not many. (Apologies “Moby Dick,” of which I’ve read two-thirds. Fail!)

Speaking of Twain, I allow him, king of the caustic and our satirical sire, to encapsulate my feelings about Austen and her most celebrated novel:

“I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin bone!”


But what is Twain saying? “Every time” he read “Pride and Prejudice”? He read it more than once, or did he just dip into it occasionally, glossing passages to confirm its unreadability, as I do whenever I pass it on the bookshop shelf?

I’m a humble hater. I am certain “Pride and Prejudice” spills forth with aesthetic virtues: bounding wit, robust guffaws, social acuity, perspicacious wisdom. I do believe that. But I am blind to it — blinded in those first excruciating pages by the twee, twittery and bogusly confected. Austen trafficked in realism. What an insufferable reality.