It always strikes me how simple it is to quit reading a novel halfway through picking it up, even a decent one. I have spoken with many passionate readers who experience this as well. I am envious of readers who push through near everything they tote. I think some readers do this with almost unconscious page-turning, as if ending the book is more magnetizing than digesting and elucidating the ideas presented within it; as if reading is just a drive, closing the book a destination. Certainly, there are factors that entice real-time abandonment: It’s a summer evening and people you know are gathering on a rooftop down the street; you are sitting next to seven other colorful books; you are a writer yourself who can’t help but write after reading three pages of anything; the first half of the book was incredibly well-written and developed but the second cannot compete . . . and on and on and on . . . but what about full abandonment? Why do we set books down after more than a breath but less than a heft?
I consider myself a committed if not self-critical reader. I’ve bumbled through bricks like The Sleepwalkers and War and Peace and A Little Life, so saying that I’m uncommitted is not an easy out. I can’t suggest this is a waning or weak attention span either—it is not the result of being representative of a generation who thinks in links. And yes, I know, we lose interest in things, and my horoscope pals will say this is just a Sagittarius thing, but self-prescribed bibliophiles won’t let that argument stand, and so instead of searching for specific and mostly psychological reasons for having put a book down, I chose instead to reach back. By reading the debut texts of the writers whose books I’ve at one point set down, I tried to find my way further into the work. If I begin where the writer began, then conquer reading the work as a whole, will I finish what I once put down? Can we successfully cruise the oeuvre this way?
What prompted this mission was the irritation I felt years ago in setting aside David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas . The novel’s opening chapters were brilliant . . . then I suddenly lost interest when I started the third. At first, the chapters’ genre-defying and time-leaping episodic intensity charged me. My reaction when the third chapter arrived was the opposite: I was dulled and felt excluded. I waited six months and tried again, reading the first two chapters before starting then stopping when I hit the third. Why?
At first I thought that I was averse to science, futurism, and fantasy in fiction. And though it’s impossible to investigate this without seeming as though I’m taking a shot at certain genres—I don’t think that I am—I’m more concerned that the actual writing in the books I’ve put down is perhaps the reason behind my release, rather than the content or genre. If it isn’t, that means content is winning. (And I might as well keep reading stories by realists—is this to say the content I’m interested in is the human condition only?) If it is the writing itself, that means I shouldn’t be reading the work.
I thought that when I encountered this particularly distant third chapter of Cloud Atlas and didn’t want to move forward, it was because I didn’t care about clones, magic, outer space, etc. Regardless of what might transcend the presence of these things—by way of Mitchell’s talents as a writer—I just wasn’t there to stay. I remember sitting in Washington Square Park reading the first two chapters, completely unaware that I was in public, and when the third chapter came I was oddly aware of my surroundings; even though I liked—not to mention truly admired—most of the writing within the futuristic passages, the content had suddenly disinterested me. So I put the book down. I did not pick it up again for years.
In order to return to Cloud Atlas I told myself that I must read every book that Mitchell has written, or published. It was winter and I was defeated but determined; I must grow with his fiction and lean into the work, I thought; I must do this front to back. I became weary of the alternative, with possibly getting comfortable with my quitting. It is a terrible truth that we miss some of the most meaningful passages of a writer’s oeuvre by reading only one thing they’ve written, one story or one novel. Of course, quite often that one thing is only talked about because it’s the masterpiece, and the reader might actually like something else even more. (Ask any avid reader what their favorite book by a certain writer is and it’s quite often not the said masterpiece.)
So I went back to the Mitchell beginnings. In just over a month I read Ghostwritten , number9dream , and, just to test myself, the book which followed the publication of Cloud Atlas , Black Swan Green. I was breaking my own plan by skipping Cloud Atlas but I wanted to enhance my approach. Then I began Cloud Atlas and I shivered when I stopped. I made it deeper into the novel this time, appreciating the writing and even learning a bit more about what I thought Mitchell was doing. But I failed, and after The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was published and I saw that it was a historical novel about something that begins so far in the past, I didn’t even bother to open it. Content was winning and, in this sense, losing here.
What is the lesson in this or does it not even matter? It can’t be all about taste. At first I thought that I was being ridiculous in cruising the oeuvre, as it’s well understood that some writers might in fact pen one great, if only good, book—why go after all their books when you can just hit up a different writer? However, if we’re talking about appreciation of style, or of being ensconced in how artfully a writer armors their text, or if we are spun around by the sharpness, rigidity, or smoothness of the lexicon deployed from the beginning, then I think we owe it to that writer to check out their other stuff. I find it gratifying to be able to talk about the broader work of a writer, not just one book. Reading more of a writer’s work holds us more responsible as readers to articulate the finer points of our immersions.
I failed with Mitchell but it produced a new outlook on reading for me. I found Black Swan Green to be the most engrossing (probably because it’s the most realistic) of Mitchell’s books, but I wouldn’t have read it if I hadn’t failed to read Cloud Atlas . Now, when I think of cruising the oeuvre I think of certain authors but all for different reasons. What I learned in chronologically cruising the oeuvre is that sometimes you have to cruise it starting from back to front, or in a scattered splattering. Though I haven’t planked all their oeuvres yet, writers I started approaching this way include: Ann Quin, Joy Williams, Denis Johnson, Toni Morrison, Norman Rush, Dana Spiotta, Philip Roth, Vivian Gornick, and Geoff Dyer.
With most of these writers, I started with a later book and put it down; that was what sent me back, or toward, more of their work. Sometimes I started at the end and moved backwards. Sometimes I grabbed something from the middle and rolled outward. In the process I have cruised a few oeuvres. But mostly I’ve come to believe that approaching other work by writers we admire, but whose books we put down, not only helps us get through all the texts, but also teaches us how to read each author and how to do so with more patience. To inhabit their whole world. To have something to say about what it is they are doing as writers, beyond masterpiece or trilogy or anthologized story.
What now though? I haven’t proved why I stop reading. But that might not matter anymore. Now I understand that what we set out to solve is often just the grazing of a larger, more informative search, and the search itself is the sustenance. Though content or plot (or lack thereof) might be a valid reason for why I’ve stopped reading a book, it doesn’t seem specific or even pertinent enough. I can play devil’s advocate here as well: Aren’t I just advocating for each reader to become an amateur thesis writer on the work of many writers? How about all those other writers I’m avoiding by reading so many books by only certain writers? What I can say is that I don’t believe I would have come to appreciate Mitchell’s work had I not gone back to his published literary beginning. The book that disinterested me challenged me to search Mitchell’s work to find the writing which interested me.
Now, in terms of enjoyment and success, I see each novel separately; however, they exist as part of a whole and are affiliated with one another’s grooves, a sort of scratched marble countertop on which we as readers can read. Stopping in the middle of a book does not mean the writing isn’t solid. While I agree with most blurbs that Cloud Atlas is probably Mitchell’s masterpiece, if we must say so, it’s rarely the writer’s masterpiece that provides the longest lasting or purest form of engagement for the reader. Sometimes you have to start cruising the oeuvre to find your way through the whole—of the writer and perhaps of yourself as reader; to find what drives you as a reader—and make sense thereafter.