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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Reading books

I occasionally will read a big novel, such as a “classic”, because I think that it is a mark of a reasonably intelligent person to be on nodding terms with some of the high points of our literature, although I often wimp out and pick up an old R. A. Heinlein or the latest John Varley science fiction novel instead. But I certainly do accept that there is nothing more tedious than plodding through acres of text as if it were somehow proof of moral virtue or literary stamina. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a bit like climbing the North face of the Eiger – more of an effort than I think it worthwhile making right now. And James Delingpole thinks the same. His article on the late John Updike is caustic, if not disrespectful.

21 comments to Reading books

  • Pretty much sums up my attitude to Ayn Rand.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    For me, Dickens is the unreadable one. It’s partly that he was so obviously paid by the word, but mainly that he has about as much regard for his characters as a Nineteenth Century mill owner had for his workers.

    If you must read Dickens, read Pratchett instead; all of Dickens’ virtues (Pratchett’s names are even better!) and a very Austen-ish charitability towards his creations.

  • Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a bit like climbing the North face of the Eiger

    Maybe bad translation?

  • And now I have to defend Dickens as well? Sigh…

  • lukas

    Delingpole is right… but in my book, if you can’t get hooked on Tolstoy, you’re not a proper human being anyway.

  • Well, now that I have read the article I am really annoyed. What a load of posturing and condescension. It is aimed at people who read books only to be able to brag about reading them, by a person who read a novel twice to be able to brag about reading it twice (and to later brag about said bragging). I rest my case.

  • manuel II paleologos


    He’s right that no-one should read a book because they feel they should, but who really does?

    I’m with him on Proust (and can’t blame that on bad translation); Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life tells you all you need to know. And I never really got the oddly humourless Flaubert either.

    But I can think of lots of flawless (as he puts it) novels; Stendhal’s Le Rouge Et Le Noir is a bit of a favourite, but there’s not a lot wrong with Crime & Punishment either, and I’ve never got how people can’t get Catch-22.

    It’s an interesting point about translations too; Mrs II P swears to me that Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Schweijk is a masterpiece, but the translation was so clangingly weak that I just couldn’t read it.

    And you don’t have to read long ones either; you can get through The Old Man And The Sea in two or three hours and that’s as flawless a piece of writing as you’ll find anywhere.

    I’ve not read War & Peace, but one day…

  • there’s not a lot wrong with Crime & Punishment

    True, but Brothers Karamazov is in a league of its own.

    I once tried a Russian translation of Schweijk and gave up. But then I remember very much enjoying a Hebrew translation of Proust’s “Pleasures and Days” (Hebrew having much less in common with French than Russian with Czech). Go figure. I think it also often depends on the mood. In any case, there is no such thing as a perfect novel, just as there is no such thing as a perfect human (except for Mr. Delingpole, of course).

  • Sunfish

    Patrick Crozier,

    Pretty much sums up my attitude to Ayn Rand.

    You stole my post! You bastard!

  • Ayn Rand at least had something to say, unlike much of mainstream fiction which seems to be about pathetic losers it’s hard to care about.

    Every now and again i try to read a mainstream novel. Usually can’t get into them and oh well back to SF.

  • I tried reading the 1818 edition of Frankenstein. My God, the purple prose! My eyes would have burned, except they went to sleep too fast.

    Literary styles change. I’m sure it was a good read back then, with the readers of the day, but today I’d rather see Karloff. But then, I’d much rather read an Icelandic saga, and their prose is as sparse as Shelley’s is florid.

  • buwaya

    Dickens is brilliant, paid by the word or not. I always found his stuff both fun and gripping.

    I think Nabokov and Dickens had a great deal in common. Try “Pnin” vs “Pickwick”.

    I can see how 19th century novels can be an aquired taste, but the taste can indeed be aquired, and it only takes a bit of patience.

    As for being bloated, some of our SF authors are exactly as described. Heinlein had some real blimps, and Neal Stephenson, well, its a sad case.

  • Updike isn’t really in the same category (dull but worthy) as a lot of the works Delingpole mentions in the same sentence.

    I found the Rabbit novels un-put-downable in a way that I hadn’t found with a series of books since I read Stephen Donaldson’s “Gap” series.

  • ian

    The ‘Gap’ series are something of a paradox – unputdownable while reading, but absolutely unbelievable afterwards and with a rather dodgy central moral premise.

  • I’m not sure about it’s literary value, but War and Peace should be read for the same reasons people read Clausewitz or Sun Tsu or Mahan. Tolstoy has some important things to say about the nature of war and politics, one may not agree with them but you should at least study them.

  • Matt

    Nobody should read to prove they are educated. The great novels are for enjoying. What could be more enjoyable than Dicken’s description of a winter’s day in Bleak House, or Tolstoy’s depiction of Pierre’s torment over whether to attempt the assassination of Bonaparte. Read. Enjoy

  • Kim du Toit

    It is one of my greatest disappointments that I never could finish even the first of the Rabbit books. The Mrs. bought me a hardback compendium of the entire series, but when I read it, I loathed the Rabbit character so much I wanted to burn the book. Never managed to finish it, either, after three tries.

    I’m sure I missed out on some good prose, but there it is.

    It’s not that I don’t enjoy books about detestable characters — Jean Valjean, at least in the early pages of Les Miserables, comes to mind, and I read Dostoevsky like a newspaper — but Rabbit was beyond the pale.

    And speaking of Dickens, he’s a walk in the park compared to the unreadable Thomas Pynchon. I like dense prose as much of more than the next guy (Lord Jim, anyone?), but Pynchon, like Rabbit, is beyond the p. (To paraphrase P.G. Wodehouse, one of England’s finest novelists.)

  • Laird

    As long as we’re confessing to literary sins, I ran out of gas somewhere in the middle of the third book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and never went back to finish it. I had to wait for the movies to see how it ended. Not that I dislike Tolkien’s writing style; I guess it was just one epic poem or Elvish song too many!

    (But I do like Ayn Rand’s books! De gustibus non est disputandum.)

  • Kevyn Bodman

    Literary sin:
    I’ve started Heart of Darkness 6 times, never been able to finish it.

    A great novel in a great translation into English : ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude.’ I *think* the translator is Gregory Rebassa (?).

  • Trofim

    I’m a Russian speaker and I haven’t read War and Peace. In general, Tolstoy’s (and Dostoevsky’s) Russian is very easy to read, but the trouble with War and Peace is that starting from page one half of it seems to be in French, an execrable language, which in my copy is translated into Russian in footnotes, sometimes stretching over two pages, which I find intolerable.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    “What could be more enjoyable than Dicken’s description of a winter’s day in Bleak House,”

    Probably, about half of Dicken’s description of a winter’s day in Bleak House.