Too Big to Ignore Anymore Challenge

November 15, 2009 at 10:33 pm | Posted in Challenges | 2 Comments

Here we are, at the end of the first challenge ever that I didn’t complete.  Well, technically I did complete one level of it (Mor-Book-ly Obese, at 7 titles), but I didn’t make my own personal goal.  I have mixed feelings about this.  I have a larger goal, that of reading 500 books this year, and to be frank, trying to read a large number of very long books was interfering with that.  I also think I could have made this goal if I’d had until December 31, but I forgot the challenge ended sooner than that.  It’s my own fault all the way around.

Ultimately, though, I did read some really terrific books.  I found myself wondering, what took me so long?  Below is my challenge list.  The books crossed off are the ones I completed, and I’ll include brief notes about each choice.

First, a quick observation on “challenging” books.  I’ve noticed that some of the eyestrain-inducers have certain things in common.  1.  Dense typeface – they seem to be in 8-point font when a lot of other books are in 10- or 12-point.  2.  Margins – they also seem to have half-inch margins.  3.  Page format – they’re paperback, but one page has noticeably more surface area than a mass market paperback.  I worked out the ratio with The Kindly Ones (hardcover, but the same feel) compared to a pop fiction book, and it was .95k per page versus .8k per page.  4.  Foreign languages – the challenging books not only have lines in multiple foreign languages, but also in foreign orthography, and what’s more they are left untranslated.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t read German and French and Spanish and Russian and Greek and Latin.  (Okay, okay, I can sound out the Greek and I can flinch my way through that, the Latin, the French, and the Spanish.  But I’m not fluent).  5.  Footnotes – often.

So much for “brief” observations.  On, now:

Too Big to Ignore Anymore Challenge – due November 15, 2009

The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck  I read this as part of my goal to read all the Pulitzer Prize winners this year.  I tried to read it as a junior in high school, and I couldn’t make it twelve pages.  Twenty years later, I finally had the chops.  It’s hard for me to believe that I denied myself one of the most all-time famous novels, deservedly one of the highlights of American literature, for so long.

Guns, Germs, and Steel – Jared Diamond  Again, why did I wait?  I read the introduction to this book in college maybe 7-8 years ago, and sent it back to the library.  I think I was taking Greek and Latin at the time, and it used up all my RAM.  I love nonfiction, I love history, and I loved this book.  I find myself referring to it constantly.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith  – I have a copy of this in mass market paperback.  That’s the only excuse I can give for not reading it.  I can’t abide reading paperbacks of that format.  I should have ordered it from the library, but chances are they only have it in paperback too.  Oh well, maybe next year.

Sophie’s Choice – William Styron  I just finished Sophie’s Choice this week.  It was a very dense, rich read, as I expected.  I also expected it to be lugubrious and depressing.  Startlingly, it was a very funny book, with a narrative voice reminiscent of Portnoy’s Complaint!  This was probably one of the best books I’ve ever read, and when I’m ready I will definitely seek out more Styron.  Masterful.

Bowling Alone – Robert D. Putnam too short unless notes are counted.  I read it anyway, and it was fantastic.  Also a book you’ll find yourself referring to constantly.

The Mill on the Floss – George Eliot  I read this when I was sick with the flu.  I consider Middlemarch one of my top three favorite books, so I was sure I would love TMOTF.  I identified with the protagonist, sure enough, but I started getting progressively more annoyed in the latter half of the book.  It ranks up there with The Portrait of a Lady for “Oh, come on!” endings.  Sigh.  Do you ever just want to reach through the pages and smack a character?

Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon-  I read about five pages and had to shift gears that day.  It’s still sitting on my shelf and I intend to read it before the library due date.  I’ve read Pynchon before and I know I’ll dig it when I’m in the right mood.  …Wait, wasn’t that what I was thinking when I originally put off reading it?

Tristram Shandy – Thomas Pynchon I finished this just this morning.  The introduction says it’s 200 years before its time, and I agree.  Holy psychedelia, Batman!  The narrator almost doesn’t even appear in the book – we’re 350 pages in and he hasn’t peed his first diaper yet.  The book ends with a punchline, a fairly good one, and indeed there are some hilarious parts.  But don’t read it unless you’re prepared to spend 700 pages wandering all over with a nonexistent plot.

Cryptonomicon – Neal Stephenson – Okay, I read 183 pages.  I read them at about 20 pages an hour.  I hate to say it, but Cryptonomicon is a Man Book bigtime.  I’ve met a couple of men who have claimed it as their favorite book.  I’ve read and loved some Stephenson in my time.  I just can’t break through that whole World War II/math thing.  I’m going to give it another shot, maybe in January.  Right now, though, if I’m going to read a book this long it’s going to be one that’s more my speed.

The Crimson Petal and the White – Michael Faber  Am I the only person who didn’t particularly like this book?  This was one of the first books I read for this challenge.  I thought it was a little heavily painted and a little obvious.  But then, I usually prefer “real” history to historical fiction.

The Recognitions – William Gaddis  Can you even begin to believe that I read this in one 24 hour sitting?  I think I actually did it in 23 hours and 40 minutes, including breaks.  It was complicated and funny and inimitable.  I think I understood it, too!

Life of Johnson – James Boswell – I tried to get this from the library, but they only had – dare I say it? – abridged copies!  What are they doing with my tax dollars???  Abridged.  I ask of you.  I downloaded it on my PDA, and I read through all 30-40 pages of introduction.  Right now Johnson is about 3 years old, begging to go to church some more.  I’ll finish it, but I’d rather do it in print.  It’s too weird to read 18th century prose in e-book format.

The Man Without Qualities – Robert Musil – I tried to get this from my library, too, but they only had one volume.  It wasn’t even one volume of the two-volume set.  I believe it was part of a three-volume version of the first volume, if that makes sense.  Anyway, I broke down and bought it, and it’s sitting there looking very like a stack of cordwood.  Maybe next year.


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  1. I was really interested to see what you said about Cryptonomicon being a Man Book, because I absolutely loved it. I got so involved that I actually forgot to get off the train at the correct station. But I can see what you mean and am now worried that I may secretly be a man….

    • I think Cynthia Heimel said it best, in an essay in which she and her British girlfriends discuss “men, women, and hairdressers.” The theory is that everyone falls into one of the categories, irrespective of gender. My hubby and I are both men – no shame in that!

      I have to say, if Cryptonomicon is a Man Book, The Guernsey Potato Peel Pie book is a Lady Book. Eat, Pray, Love is too. It doesn’t mean men can’t or don’t enjoy these books, just that they probably won’t bring them along to Poker Night. I went to a Diana Gabaldon reading, and out of at least 100 people there I don’t think any of them were men. Just saying.

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