Bleary-Eyed Book Monger Joins Club and Breaks Rules, All Before Reading

I’ve decided to do something extraordinarily counterintuitive (and, well, just plain dumb) for an independent publisher who is quite literally swimming in manuscripts (and reveling in every dry ink-laden minute of it). I will hurtle my squat body forward, spare no idiom before my wine, throw four babies to the wind, out with sheets, caution, and the bath water, too–and participate in this week’s Literary Blog Hop, hosted by The Blue Bookcase, the book review blog for bookish people.

Even though this publisher’s blog does not “primarily feature book reviews of literary fiction or classic literature,” we do immensely enjoy hosting, facilitating and engaging in “general literary discussion,” so perhaps we won’t get booted from the Literary Blog Hop. If we do get the boot due to our irreverent tone and rule-breaking (and, yes, even ball-breaking) behavior, so be it. Our experience among the heavy hitters of the book blogging community was fun while it lasted.

This week’s question, submitted by Debbie Nance at Readerbuzz, is: What is the most difficult literary work you’ve ever read? What made it so difficult?

Instead of answering that excellent two-part question (or perhaps before answering it, depending on how long I ramble), let’s examine several literary works that I have not read and decide or at least rationalize, in an open forum, imprecisely the reasons that they have been so difficult for me to complete (er, crack open). These are the neglected stepchildren of my private library, the books that I have possessed for years with only the best intentions of curling up with them on the sofa and embracing their icy, crooked-nose brilliance on a cold winter’s night (or having them accompany me on a summer sojourn and immersing myself in their unseasonably warm, wisdom-laced waters).

But no, these are the books whose spines remain stiff, whose jackets remain unblemished, and whose words remain sadly, unforgivably unread. These are the literary albatrosses of my life. Not obvious classics like War and Peace, mind you, or Moby Dick, or Ulysses (all very admirable and popular choices among those who need to confess omissions of an egregious, sinful nature), but lesser known, critically acclaimed works of great intrinsic value, infinitesimal intellectual worth. Rich volumes of literature and contemporary wunderkinds that reside in me through the wonders of osmosis and the occasional flipping of pages … because I own them and they, like superior schoolyard bullies, tend to prod and bait me mercilessly as I pass their resting place on my shelf, engaging me in conversation and then promptly dismissing me as a knucklehead, a lost cause … knowing damn well that I haven’t actually read or attempted to understand a single one of them.

Why, you ask. I haven’t a clue.

These titles, in no particular order, are not among the piles of books on and next to my nightstand; these are among the unfinished books I move, and upon occasion, rotate to make room for other candidates. Lest I be misunderstood, these titles undoubtedly need to be read. And someday, perhaps, I will be in the proper frame of mind to read them. Until then, they remain utterly aloof and as inaccessible to me as a locked vault on frozen tundra.

1. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden: This 1952 work has eluded me to this point for reasons foreign to me for as far as my eyes can see. This ambitious saga of Steinbeck’s family history, all 601 pages of it in the 2002 Steinbeck Centennial Edition, begins with the simply stated fact: “The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.” For some reason, that sentence has always created an obstacle larger than any towering Sequoia tree. If this is “the book that brought Oprah’s Book Club back,” as it says on the 2003 Penguin Paperback cover, then I, like Groucho Marx, have no interest in joining “a club that would have someone like me for a member.”

2. Jack Kerouac’s Visions of Cody: An underground legend by the time it was finally published in 1972, Visions has been shrewdly marketed and strategically categorized by Penguin as a Non-Classic. I’ve read the scatter-shot, six-page introduction by Allen Ginsberg in the 1973 UK edition, but haven’t gotten past the opening line: “This is an old diner like the ones Cody and his father ate in, long ago, with that old-fashioned railroad car ceiling and sliding doors — the board where bread is cut is worn down fine as if with bread dust and a plane; the icebox (“Say I got some nice homefries tonight Cody!”) is huge brownwood thing with oldfashioned pull-out handles, windows, tile walls, full of lovely pans of eggs, butter pats, piles of bacon — old lunchcarts always have a dish of sliced raw onions ready to go on hamburgs.” Whew, no wonder I never made it past that opener.

3. Milan Kundera’s Immortality: Positioned as a Harper Perennial Modern Classic and just 20 years old, this too is a book, despite its alluring description of the character Agnes (“like Flaubert’s Emma or Tolstoy’s Anna”) that has escaped me as thoroughly as the meaning behind “the great themes of existence.”

4. Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks: I love the storytelling of Russell Banks and Affliction, Sweet Hereafter, and Rule of the Bone all stand tall and proud in my cases of fiction (yes, organized alphabetically by author), but I’m simply stumped by the challenge of reading about one of the most iconic figures in American history, the Che Guevara of his time. It’s a flaw in my DNA, I’m sure, and this too I someday shall overcome. Until then, I’ll gladly return to his masterful collection, The Angel on the Roof, again and again for inspiration.

5. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible: Another author whose collected works of short fiction, essays and poetry, I admire, but this novel has been as elusive to me as the holy grail. “Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.” Now that’s a great opening line. Have I given it a fair chance from there? No. Why, you ask. I haven’t a clue.