An unfinished book

September 18, 2009 at 12:00 am 4 comments

pillarsI read an essay once about becoming willing to not finish a book and ceasing to be one of those people who absolutely must finish a book no matter how much he/she is hating it. Indeed, sometimes there is more will-power involved in not finishing a book than in actually doing so. Since January 2008 (or possibly before), I have been not reading The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett and it is really starting to wear on me!

The Pillars of the Earth is an undeniably well-thought-of book. Such varied entities as my mother, the New York Times, and Oprah all recommended this book, which I think should give you an idea of just how widely renowned this book is. It tells the story of a few different medieval people (a prior, a high-born lady, a mason, etc.) all operating in the same geographic area and contending with various, interlocking life issues. In addition to being widely admired, the book is also remarkably historically accurate, vividly written, and very interesting. But I have not been reading it, after getting more than half-way through, for over a year and a half. Why?

There are a few reasons which aren’t really very explicable, but the main reason is that I was extremely put-off and a little scarred by the violent raping and pillaging that goes on throughout the book and is written down in terrible detail. Some of you may have been comparing Pillars to something by Edward Rutherfurd or Philippa Gregory because of its scope and time frame, but there is something pleasantly gentle about both Rutherfurd and Gregory that is lacking in Pillars. And not just lacking. Brutally absent, would be more accurate. Pillars may well be the more historically accurate for its rape and pillage, but the way in which it is written was just horrifying to me. I like to think I’m not that prudish, but I still almost literally shutter to think about the sexual relations portrayed in this book (mostly limited to various men forcing themselves on wholly terrified, powerless women and loving it).

That was what literally stopped me. I could not take another page of this particular character forcing himself upon another poor woman. But there it sits. On my shelf with a little book dart holding my place, as if I would remember what had happened plot-wise in the first 457 pages if I cared to return to it. Despite my utter revulsion towards the book, I still feel distinctly guilty for not finishing it.

There is definitely something (and I don’t know if this is societal or just an individual thing) that says to us that we should always finish our books, no matter what, and that to not do so is somehow shameful or perhaps lazy. My mom claims that one of the more important life lessons she has gathered over the course of her life is that “it’s okay to not finish a book.” She wisely tried to instill this in me early as I rather angstily battled my way through things like The Two Towers or basically anything by Melville. I’m still trying to learn that lesson, but I also still wonder why it is such a hard one. Ostensibly, nothing should be easier than putting a book down and not picking it up again. Why then is it so hard?

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Entry filed under: Contemporary Fiction, Musings and Essays. Tags: , , .

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  September 18, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    My boss at the sewing center thought this book was only okay…but still, it seems like everyone has read it! It’s crazy.

    I agree that sometimes it’s okay not to finish a book — I gave up on The Silmarillion early on, and I’ve never looked back. I am a better person for not having struggled through it!

    I have to disagree that Philippa Gregory is ‘gentle,’ though! While her Tudor books are pretty tame, Wideacre contains a threesome of a young woman, her bisexual masochistic brother and their sadistic servant, who regularly go around beating on each other until the girl gets pregnant with her brother’s baby. Eventually she sets a bear trap for the servant, whose legs get chopped off, I believe, and when they are reunited and she realizes how much she loves him, he stabs her and she dies in a kind of weird orgasmic pain/death thing.

    Coincidentally, I couldn’t finish that book because it was just too disturbing; I skipped the whole middle and read the last page just to give myself some closure. Zelda’s Cut and The Wise Woman are similarly weird.

    Reply
  • 2. Corey  |  September 18, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    Damn, Philippa Gregory! I mean, damn! I just read the Wikipedia synopsis for Wideacre and it was even crazier than you described. Indeed, I was judging her based on the Tudor books and then possibly confusing her with Alison Weir. Can we agree that she is primarily ‘gentle’? My bad in any event. I wrote this during an addled brain moment!

    It is an oddly wide-spread book for something so violent. I wonder no one talks about it more. When I told my mom about my reservations, she said she didn’t even remember their being a violent rape scene let alone twelve. Very peculiar.

    Reply
    • 3. KT  |  September 18, 2009 at 3:07 pm

      Yeah, I took Wideacre out from the library after reading The Queen’s Fool and was utterly stunned! I think we can agree that Alison Weir, though, is delightfully free of kinky and/or non-consensual sex. :D

      It IS strange that no one mentions it! My boss did sort of make a face when describing it, though — as if possibly she found the raping and pillaging distasteful but didn’t feel like a raping/pillaging discussion would be an appropriate one to have with this co-worker she’s barely met. So. :P

      Reply
      • 4. Corey  |  September 20, 2009 at 9:42 am

        Yay Alison Weir! She triumphs yet again here at LT! :)

        Yeah, maybe it is just it being socially awkward to talk about raping and pillaging that stops people from bringing it up. It’s so much easier to say positive things about a book rather than harping on its physical violence, particularly in polite conversation with people you don’t know that well. :)

        Also, ugh, I typed the wrong “their” above. I feel much shame.

        Reply

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