The Back Page

STUCK ON THE SAME PAGE

I’m not sure when it started, but I’ve become a serial book-unfinisher

PAUL WELLS March 14 2005
The Back Page

STUCK ON THE SAME PAGE

I’m not sure when it started, but I’ve become a serial book-unfinisher

PAUL WELLS March 14 2005

STUCK ON THE SAME PAGE

I’m not sure when it started, but I’ve become a serial book-unfinisher

The Back Page

PAUL WELLS

MY FRIEND B is all hot on a fancy spy novelist named Alan Furst. He eagerly thrust into my hands one of Furst’s books, Kingdom of Shadows. Gave me the he’s-so-goodyou’re-so-lucky-to-be-reading-him-for-the-first-time talk. I have long believed B to be smarter than me, so I obediently set to work.

Sure enough, the book has sex, death, trains and double-crosses in far-flung corners of Nazi-occupied Europe. I made it to page 101 before I completely ran out of interest: “Draw the room,” Novotny said. “Don’t forget the elevator for the shells.” I realized I had for-

gotten who Novotny was or who he was talking to. So much for Alan Fürst.

I discussed my dilemma with B’s girlfriend. “Oh yeah, he gave me a couple of those to read too,” she said. “I couldn’t finish them.”

Thus emboldened, I broke the news to B. “I’m not going to finish the Alan Fürst book.”

He took it well, I thought. The answering email read: “Cretin.”

That’s how I feel, too. It is a dark burden to bear, this business of not finishing books. You start out with all the goodwill in the world. You flip the pages diligently. Your circle of acquaintances expands by a dozen or more as this cast of made-up people enters your life. And before you even find out how it all turns out for them, you set them aside. What’s your problem?

You feel ungrateful, somehow. The author put his life into these people, and I can’t even stick around to see who lives or who dies? And yet, as I stare at the books in my library, I realize I have become a serial book-unfinisher.

Last spring I got tired of politicians who don’t know the first thing about how to do politics. (Three guesses what got me into that state of mind.) I bought Paul Grondahl’s I Rose Like a Rocket: The Political Education of Theodore Roosevelt. It’s a strapping tale. Great fun. At one point the young Roosevelt, a Harvard-educated New York City dandy, lights out for the badlands of the Dakota Territory, where the crusty locals find him more delightful than ridiculous,

but only by the narrowest of margins. At one point Grondahl has Roosevelt saddling up and shouting to his homespun colleagues, “Hasten forward quickly there,” and soon every cowboy in the badlands is shouting the same thing and roaring with laughter.

Great stuff. What happens next? Couldn’t tell you. My bookmark rests at page 208, and it will probably stay there. I’m given to understand things worked out pretty well for Roosevelt later, but I deny any knowledge of the details.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t abandon every book at the halfway point. Sometimes I give up way before that. Saul Bellow’s The Adventures ofAugie March is sitting beside my bed with a bookmark sitting at the beginning of Chapter 6. It’ll probably stay there until I move it to the library, where it will defraud party guests who will think me literate. My cousin Jenny, who wrote her master’s thesis on Bellow,

won’t be impressed. Sorry, Jen.

Every once in a while I actually finish a book. This gives me a false sense of bravado, which is promptly crushed. I loved Richard Ford’s novel The Sportswriter, so I bought the Pulitzer-winning sequel, Independence Day. I made it to page 142.1 really enjoyed pages one through 141. In this book, Ford’s character, Frank Bascombe, is selling real estate. When I was house-hunting I recounted anecdotes from pages one to 142 to my real-estate agent. It made me feel vaguely guilty. I prayed he wouldn’t ask me a trick question about something that happens on page 145.

I loved Back on Tuesday, David Gilmour’s novel about drinking. I loved How Boys See Girls, his novel about sex. I finished An Affair With the Moon, the next one. And Lost Between Houses, the one after that? Well, I bought it.

Blame or credit for my setting a book aside lies with nobody but me. Quality has nothing to do with it. I’ve cheerfully abandoned some of the great books of the English language. I read Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday and The Pearl by John Steinbeck. But The Grapes of Wrath} Abandoned at page 176. This time there was actually a reason. Steinbeck was starting too many sentences with “and.” And it was getting on my nerves. And it was turning into a cheap gimmick. And I’d had enough of it. And I know that’s a lame reason. And I don’t care.

Don DeLillo’s Underworld was my great reading project of 1997. It was still my great reading project four years later. I gave up at page 745, only 72 pages from the end. You win, Don. The first 60 pages of that book are so beautiful I didn’t want to resent them by suffering through the last 72.

You’d think I’d have an affinity for back pages, given my berth in this magazine. Funny how I almost never see one. IÎ1]

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