Recently, while moving, I decided to jettison as many books I would never read again as I could. I have reached a stage where to some degree the fight has gone out of me and I've started to do the reasonable thing, something my younger, more frantic self, would never have done. I decided to get rid of books that irritated me, but before I did I looked through the notes (I make pencil notes in every book I've ever had, a habit I got into at university and now that's how I like my books and why I can't own a Kindle, because the more notes, the more battered, the more wrinkled the pages of my books, the better I like them) to make sure I was not throwing away anything worthwhile.
Amongst the books I jettisoned there was a contemporary novel I bought, not being a reader of much contemporary fiction, to see what it was up to. This book was prize winning. 'So empty!' I raged in a margin. 'Madness-inducing emptiness.' 'Sheer pointlessness of going on reading'. I don't know how far I made it. I think only about a third. The next one I chose to throw out was Arms and the Man, by George Bernard Shaw. Despite the scholarly notes in the front fly pages, [I read it at Oxford and everything had to be praised and taken 'seriously' then] I had written in the margin, not too far in: 'This is one of the most boring plays I have ever read. I do not care one ounce about any of the characters and am so enervated I can hardly keep track of who is who'!
But unlike the above two examples, most books aren't that easy to get rid of because many of them are made up of parts that we like as well as parts we don't care for. Just when do you give up on a book, and by give up I don't mean stop reading, but get rid of? I ended up keeping almost all the ones I initially intended to give to a charity shop. In the process of going through all my books I ended up dividing them into categories:
1) books I would probably not read again but decided to keep for canonical purposes (who knows when you need to look up a line from Chaucer's Wife of Bath?)
2) books on my reading list, which though I may be deluding myself, I hope to read at some point (The Man Without Qualities, for example).
3) books I consider to be awful, because they show how not to write.
4) awe-full books - no explanation needed as to why I keep these. To me these awe-full books include works by:
Emily and Charlotte Bronte
T. S. Eliot
Rainier Maria Rilke
5) books I am keeping because I think they are excellent, though not awe-full
6) books I am keeping because I like them, regardless of their literary merit:
Dylan on Dylan: The Essential Interviews
The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh
About A Boy, Nick Hornby (Hornby does a sensational job of getting inside the mind of a 12-year old boy beleaguered by bullies and a parent who is losing the plot. He excels at dramatising traits that make up his characters so the reader gets an excellent idea of who they are - and has a great time reading about them; it really is so enjoyable reading Nick Horby. He is an exceptionally gifted documenter of ordinary life. He has the talent of making people instantly recognisable by foregrounding the tiny events we see regularly but don't usually notice.)
7) books I am keeping for their sheer value to horrify (me, at least), in case I ever feel brave enough to travel into their vortex again; a category I have invented to fit just one book, a book I found so disturbing I didn't want to own it any more and considered getting rid of it as one would a haunted object (is the highest praise?) Wish Her Safe At Home, by Stephen Benatar. This novel, which was self-published (I wonder why) is a devastating combination of the tawdry and mundane, the grotesque and sinister, and insinuates itself, Chinese water-torture-like, into the reader's consciousness, which by degrees has merged with the main character's consciousness, until the whole experience becomes (in my case) unbearable, the slightest ripple triggering deep waves of grief and dread, forcing me to skip ahead to the end and miss the last third because I simply couldn't handle the sadness, grief, horror and shame. I had to stop reading periodically to come up for air (which gave no relief anyway because the sickly, subtly horrific atmosphere of the book now coloured the world I inhabited). As the book progresses we find ourselves wondering if the world we see through the prism of the protagonist's vision is an accurate one, find ourselves wondering how much she is fooling us as well as herself. It is an experience similar to that which a reader of Ishiguro may have for example - only a hundred times more so. I can't help thinking it is this power to disturb and repulse that made it so difficult for Benatar to find a publisher. He has created something so distasteful - so pungent - that no one wanted to touch it.
And there are other things about the novel, about the effect it produces, that are quite inexplicable: how, for example, does Benatar conjure such desolation, such hopelessness, such encroaching madness and sickly despair simply by describing how the heroine moves her armchair a foot or so closer to the fireplace at the end of one chapter because she has heard it said 'it was better for the carpet, to shift your furniture occasionally'? There are countless such marvels: the disjunction, for instance, between the pitiful nature of the protagonist's illusions and her bursts into masculine profanity, like a woman roaring, where the narrative seemed to me to teeter on the brink of a horror film. The irony is ghastly and tragic and nauseating all at once, and produced solely by the protagonist's self-deluding perceptions of the world. Rachel Waring is in the same camp as the protagonist of Patrick McCabe's terrible The Butcher Boy (a book that also affected me so adversely I considered never opening it again), as Stevens, Kazuo Ishiguro's ageing butler, some of Kafka's heroes and the heroine of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper. But for sheer ability to disturb, Rachel Waring gets my vote. Reading Wish Her Safe At Home is like experiencing personal trauma: you keep telling yourself there is respite, there is good, there are other things in the world apart from it - but rationality makes no headway; the feeling; the aching; the dread remains.
In the end there was only one book that I decided not only to give up on but to (finally) destroy: Henry James' The Wings of the Dove. It has several distinctions: it is the only book that has reduced me to tears of rage and frustration because I could not understand the prose (at least, I didn't when I read it at nineteen; maybe I should try again). It is also the only book I have stabbed repeatedly with a fork. I decided to delve into it again and before very long I realised it wasn't youthful philistinism that persuaded me to give up. James didn't lose me me as a reader for nothing. I'd simply had my fill of lines like these: 'the remote progenitor of such wantonness audible wondered', 'the girl's tired smile watched the word as if it had taken on a small grotesque visibility' (p. 65 Penguin Classics edition), 'The main office of this relative for the young Croys - apart from giving them their fixed measure of social greatness - had struck them as being to form them to a conception of what they were not to expect' (p 71), 'Sitting far downstairs Aunt Maud was yet a presence from which a sensitive niece could feel herself extremely under pressure' (p72). Is this man really lauded as a master of style, I wondered again? Of course, A Portrait of a Lady is another matter but here the sentences are laughably awkward, like a parody of pretentious writing - almost seems a parody of James himself. Take this, for instance: 'She carried on in short, behind her aggressive and defensive front, operations determined by her wisdom' (p 74). James' evocation of characters, atmospheres, scenes, events and interactions is so vague I was left wondering if I had imagined impressions or really intuited them. I feel able to be brave enough to say these things now, whereas I could never have as an undergraduate. The conveyance of information is so nuanced, so delicately phrased (if 'phrased' can be used in reference to such impressionistic sentences), that this reader, in any case, was lost in a haze of indeterminacy; lost on thermals (the wrong thermal, half the time, probably) of suggestion and melding thought. Of course, I'm not silly enough to think that part of this is intentional. It continues, endlessly: 'you would have got fairly near him by making out in his eyes the potential recognition of ideas; but you would have quite fallen away again on the question of the ideas themselves' (p86). The sentences, rhythms, audible semblance of meaning, become no more than patters in my consciousness, a foreign language I dreamed or imagined I grasped and then just as quickly forgot, losing what meaning I thought I had rescued, rather as James' description of a character in the last but one sentence.
Looking at Wings again today I see that I managed to make it to page 194 before caving in and congratulate myself. But I did not actually destroy the book, I recycled it: I needed paper-mache for model hills and the paper in the penguin edition was great for that. It seems some books really can be given up on.
When to Give Up On a Book