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Dave Astor

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The Art of Not Finishing a Famous Book

Posted: 08/12/11 04:30 PM ET

Even a broken clock is right twice a day. Even a renowned novel is unreadable twice a year (approximately).

I'm not talking about rereading great works of fiction -- that can be very satisfying. I'm talking about the fact that, perhaps twice a year, I'll pick up an acclaimed book for the first time and find that I just can't finish the darn thing.

The novel might be too dense, too confusing, too boring, too painful, or have too high an ISBN number (actually, that last problem is not a problem). I might admire the soon-to-be abandoned book, but don't want to devote precious time to it. I say that as someone who annually finishes 40-50 novels -- some of them complex.

Among the books I couldn't complete for one or more of the above reasons were George Eliot's Middlemarch, William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, and Erich Maria Remarque's brilliant but horrific concentration-camp composition Spark of Life.

I realize that continuing to slog through a novel that says "stop reading me" after 100 pages may pay dividends when I reach the end of the book. Dense can turn into sophisticated, confusing into illuminating, boring into sublime, and painful into cathartic.

That was the case when I recently read Desert by 2008 Nobel Prize winner J.M.G. Le Clezio. I found the book's opening scenes in the, well, desert to be magnificently written but kind of tedious. I slowly pushed through those pages, and when the book leaped several decades forward to focus on a fascinating independent girl named Lalla, I was hooked. By the time I finished, those early desert scenes turned out to have been crucial in making Le Clezio's anti-colonialist novel as powerful as it is.

So maybe I need to go back to the aforementioned Eliot, Faulkner, Proust, and Remarque titles.

I also had trouble completing Charles Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, and Robert Louis Stevenson's Weir of Hermiston. Oops -- the authors of those books died before finishing them.

(By the way, I think Weir is Stevenson's best novel despite its partial state. Robert Louis took a giant leap in writing maturity with that book, though his earlier works such as Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were also quite good.)

For those readers about to complete this hopefully not dense/confusing/boring/painful blog post, here's a question: What famous books did you not finish or had to force yourself to finish?