Sunday, June 21, 2009

Books I own, books that own me.

Last week's post about my summer of reading classics got me thinking about those books I've attempted to read that have defeated me. These are the books that I've taken up full of eagerness to scale the great peaks of literature, the canonical works capable of transforming me from an ordinary reader into one of the elect, a great reader, while simultaneously making me a better person. Instead, they owned me. These books are the schoolyard bullies among my library - they shattered my confidence, humiliated me, and kept me away from the playground for days.

These are not bad books - far from it. They are inarguable masterpieces. Why else would I attempt to read them? For various reasons, however, I have failed as a reader when it comes to the titles I hope to unveil over the following few weeks.

I present them in order of the psychological trauma they inflicted upon me, starting this week with the book that above all others torments me: Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry. I have attempted to read this book five times.

The first time I began, I was seventeen. Something about the dissolution of the novel's main character enticed me. A straight-laced kid from the suburbs loves nothing more than reading about an alcoholic in an exotic place. I gave up 8 pages in, certain that I was not yet mature enough to "get" the book.

The second and third attempts were in my mid-twenties. I was living in a beach resort town. In the late afternoon, after work, I would sit on the deserted beach and plough through classic after classic: one summer alone I chased Moby-Dick with One Hundred Years of Solitude. I gulped down Murakami, Knut Hamsun, Thomas Mann without hesitation.

But not Malcolm Lowery. He proved himself a worthy nemesis two successive summers, insolently mocking my attempts to get further than page 37.

I tried another approach the fourth time - it was January. Maybe the reason I couldn't find my way into the labyrinth that is Under the Volcano was due to the fact that I was reading it in the wrong season? Not so. January proved no more amenable than June. Defeated again.

Finally, last summer I was traveling through the Mosquito Coast in Honduras. Among the obsessively chosen books I tossed in my backpack was, yes, Under the Volcano. If I couldn't read it on the beach or under the covers on a winter night, I would definitely be able to read it in the jungle, if for no other reason than that I would be forced to by my lack of options. Well, the jungle proved slightly more worthy - I got to page 50 this time, but no further.

Am I simply incompatible with Malcolm Lowery's book? Are we never to get along? It's still sitting on my shelf. After all of our hours together - I'm convinced the book has suffered along with me - we have yet to part ways. We're still hopeful that some day, in whatever imperfect circumstance and season, we will complete our journey.

And immediately after both will go our separate ways.


Spiros said...

PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN; I feel as though I have memorized the first half, then I bog down at almost exactly the halfway point. I am resigned.

Bishop said...

I didn't grab Under the Volcano until I was 36, had divorced a brilliant half-mad heavy drinking woman and emigrated to Europe. It made perfect, brilliant sense to me to the very end, but I've not had the fortitude to pick it up again.