Hildegarde

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Rejection

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Sometimes, reading this blog makes me feel like an old fogey–just using the term “old fogey” makes me feel like an old fogey.  But I  can’t believe how many of you just assumed that the lottery winners who went wild and to held were young.  In fact, every single one of them was over forty but one, and he was definitely over 35.  The couple portrayed at the end as “good” winners who handled it well were in their twenties.  

But, whatever, what I really want to get into here is the fact that I think I’m about to do something very unusual, and I was wondering if I’m a little off in this sense. 

When I was very small, my father told me that it was a disaster ever to leave anything unfinished.   Too many people, he said, go through life with good ideas, and start good projects, only to lose interest and wander away, and therefore losing any benefit that might have been had from finishing.   A college education only “counts” if you get that degree.  It doesn’t matter how smart you are, or how much knowledge you have, if you drift off at the end of sophomore year.

I was about seven or eight at the time of this conversation, so  I’m not sure why college was the object of the lesson–although in my house, I not only knew that I was going to college by the time I was three, but I’d picked out the place, and it turned out to be the place when the time came–but I know what made it memorable.

That was the fact that, at the time, I was in the habit of starting stories, or even whole novels (The  Susan Derringer Mystery Books!), and then just sort of never getting around to doing anything about them.  And I could see my father’s point.   It wasn’t enough to have a long list of titles for the books that were to come in the series.   You had to have the actual books.  Which meant you had to write them.

Now, this was very good advice, and in general it’s done me well over the years, but it does have one drawback–for most of my life, I’ve been damned near incapble of  NOT finishing anything.   And I do mean anything.   But at the moment, what I want to talk about is books.

In the whole of my life, I’ve probably put down and refused to continue with a total of maybe five books, and there have been many more than that that haven’t been worth finishing.  I’m rather proud of myself for having given up on The Da Vinci Code, but I was almost driven into that one.  I kept making notes in the margins and on the flaps about historical inaccuracies, the author’s complete and appalling ignorance of both the Middle Ages and the general rules of logical inference–anyway, it got to the point where I couldn’t follow the plot any more because all this other stuff kept getting in the way.

In the years since, I have managed to force myself through some books that I’ve positively hated, and some of them have been long.  Over the past week, however,  I’ve been reading a book that has managed to bore me more than most technothrillers do, and that’s saying something, because I am a woman who goes to sleep during sword fights and car chases.

The book is Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott.  Alcott was the daughter of Bronson Alcott, who established one of the first American communies (before the Civil War!), called  Fruitlands, where everybody was supposed to share the manual labor and not eat meat.  She grew up in Concord and had her first girlish crush on a relatively superannuated Ralph  Waldo Emerson.  She was a child of the Transcendalists in a literal sense, and one of their sharpest-eyed chroniclers throughout her life. 

If Little Women was about the Transcendentalists, I might have liked it better.  Instead, it’s a book deliberately aimed at children–girl children–in Alcott’s desperate attempt to make enough money to keep her family afloat.  This wasn’t easy, because her father was just the kind of irresponsible hippie he would have been if he’d lived in 1960 instead of 1860.  There was never enough food in the house and the Alcotts were continually being evicted from one house or the other for nonpayment of rent.   If it hadn’t been for good old Waldo, they probably would have starved.  As it was, old Bronson Alcott was fond of giving Louisa long lectures about why she was a “dark” child and largely both untalented and evil.   When he wasn’t doing that, he was calling family meetings to explain why marriage was an unacceptable restraint on the liberty of the individual and he was going to book it right this second and try his luck on his own in the West.

He never actually went, which might have been the bad news.

At any rate, I had this book on by TBR stack in my office, and I don’t remember buying it.   I do know why I didn’t read it as a child.  I had a positive horror of “children’s books” when I was growing up.   I thought their very existence was an insult to my intelligence.  I mean, what were these books trying to say?  That I couldn’t read real books?  I don’t know why I didn’t equate  Nancy Drew with “children’s books,” but it was a good thing I didn’t, because if  I had, I’d never have read them.

The odd thing about Little Women, however, is the fact that I don’t remember buying it.  It was up there on the stack, so I must have, and it isn’t too old–the papers aren’t yellowing yet–and I don’t think I would have been given it as a gift, since it’s a Barnes and Noble  Classics edition.

If you don’t know about these, you should.  Barnes and Noble, the American bookstore company, has put out a whole slew of classic texts in cheap but solid trade paperback editions.  Their two-volume set of the complete Sherlock Holmes is the best you can get anywhere if you aren’t interested in the kind of footnoted edition that can provide blood types for Holmes and  Moriarity both.

So the book was there, and I’m still making notes for an essay on Hawthorne and company, and I thought I’d give it a shot.   I knew a few things that I hadn’t back when I’d been avoiding it as a child, and that included the fact that it was, for many yeras, right up through th ebeginning of the Great Depression, the best selling novel in  America.  In the twenties, a survey asking what book the respondents felt had had the most influence on their lives got Little Women as an answer more often than the  Bible.  And did that for three years of surveys in a row.

Obviously, something was going on here, and to an extent it still is.  Little Women is being read by generation after generation of  American girls.  It’s still being taken out of libraries and its editions still make money, if not so much as they used to.  What’s more, it’s not a matter of this having become a course adoption text (CAT–I like the acronym), because usually it isn’t.   It wasn’t assigned in school when  I went, and I know it isn’t assigned now.  It won’t show up on a college curriculum unless you take a special course in children’s literature or are working on the gradduate level in American Studies, at which point it’s treated like Uncle Tom’s Cabin–interesting as an artefact, not as a novel.

So here is all this stuff going on, and it’s evident that lots and lots of people over lots and lots of years, even generations, have really loved this book.

I just have no idea why.

I mean, for God’s sake.  I know the thing was written for children at a time when all literature for children was supposed to be composed of moral homilies, but this thing is so sickly sweet I want to kick it.  And I want to wring the necks of virtually all the girls except Jo, and with Jo I keep wishing she’d suddenly decide to come out, and I don’t mean as a debutante. 

What’s more, the whole moral patina of the thing hides some very odd stuff.  The family is symbiotic to the point of weirdness, with the girls–even the older girls–hating the idea of marriage because it will break up their little circle.  Then there’s the long sequence that results in Beth’s getting scarlet fever because she does an errand that was supposed to be Jo’s responsibility. It’s not the sequence itself I object to as much as the way the characters respond to it–Jo herself, and all the people around her, take her responsibility for  Beth’s illness and near death with about the same amount of moral outrage they’d use to scold her if she’d been expelled from school for cutting classes.

I have absolutely no idea why anybody reads this book.   One of the posters in the comments said a few weeks ago, I think, that she liked to read books where people had goals and didn’t drift.  Well, this is not the book for her, really.  There doesn’t seem to be any kind of actual point.  The girls and their mother just go through life, with little treats and moral homilies and a few asides about the troubles caused by their “poverty,” which is the poverty of the nineteenth century middle classes–they hav very little in the way of clothes, and they all have to work, but they still employ one servant.   The woman who wrote the introduction to the edition I have is very perplexed by the servant, but I get it.

I don’t need a strong plot in a novel if the characters are interesting to me.  These characters are too unrealistic to be interesting to me.   I can understand the desire to set down an account of the way we live now, and I understand that in  America that project has often been done through children’s books–Laura Ingalls Wilder and The Little House on the Prairie, Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn.  But this isn’t that, either.

I also understand Alcott’s desperate desire to create on paper the sane and loving family she never had, to take a childhood of misery, chaos and grinding penury and transform it into one she could actually live with, but it’s not one I can live with.   I can’t remember being this bored with a book in a long time. 

But I also can’t seem to force myself to put it down.  If the thing was actively bad, I might have a chance.  Anger moves me to action more than boredom does. 

What I do is read page after page, often very slowly.  Then I put it down, do something else, pick it up–a book that should have taken me three or four days to read has already eaten up two weeks, and I have a feeling it’s going to take me a lot longer.

I have no idea what it would take me to give up on this.  I  just wish  I could find the formula.

Written by janeh

February 11th, 2009 at 6:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Rejection'

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  1. I feel like an old fogey all the time these days. I find myself repeating old advice like ‘If a thing’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing well!’ I don’t think I ever got advice to finish things; in fact, not finishing things is a fault of mine, but not one I ever applied to books. I came up with a habit of finishing books all on my own. I now do toss a book that is only partly read, but for years I didn’t do it at all, and even now I rarely do it.

    I suppose I must have read ‘Little Women’. I got the basic story somewhere. It can’t have been one of my favourites – all I can really remember is that Jo (the one I might have identified with much) ended up in a rather creepy marriage with a much older man, and that the death scene – Beth’s? – was supposed to be very touching.

    That lack of impact is a bit odd, because as a girl I adored rather old-fashioned ‘girl’s books’. Give me a plucky orphan girl and a close family or family-substitute struggling valiantly against poverty, and I dove right in. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, The Five Peppers, my all-time favourites, LM Montgomery’s books,… I must have read ‘Little Women’, but it didn’t make the impact on me the others did. I wonder why? Maybe it was something to do with the characters – Jo was the only one with any oomph and personality, and even she irritated me.

    And I wonder why I loved those against-the-odds books? My own family was stable and, if not rich, certainly not poor, so I can’t have been looking for a solution to my non-existent struggles as a poverty-stricken orphan.

    You can refuse to finish a book, or so I’m told. Just close it and drop it off at your favourite donation site. I know it’s not easy, but it is possible!

    cperkins

    11 Feb 09 at 7:37 am

  2. On the library Reader’s Adviser listserve I belong to, we have talked about whether or not you should put down books without finishing. The rule a number of us have adopted is called the ’50 Page Rule’. By the time you’ve read 50 pages, you know what the book is like. It’s not likely to get any better over the course of the book. We decided that life is too short and there are too many other great books out there to spend our time on something we’re not getting anything out of. Finishing a book that bores you to tears wastes time that could be spent on a book which might be more worthwhile for you.

    The mere fact that many of us on the listserve had to adopt an official rule before we could put a book down unfinished shows that you’re not alone in your determination to Finish That Book!

    Lee B

    11 Feb 09 at 12:45 pm

  3. I don’t have a hard and fast rule about not finishing books at a particular page. Rather, if at any point I find myself not caring about the characters or the plot, to the point it becomes a chore to pick it back up (mentally I call it “slogging”) then I know I shouldn’t finish.

    It can be a shock to the system not to finish, but at some point your time becomes more valuable than your need to follow ingrained but not always logical rules. And that next *good* book has to be calling out to you.

    I’ve never read Little Women. As I recall, I couldn’t even watch the movie. As a child I was far more likely to read a dog or horse story than anything about a bunch of girly girls. Ick.

    Lymaree

    11 Feb 09 at 1:19 pm

  4. If you find the formula, please post it. I have at last reached the point where I will skim non-fiction rather than properly read once I’ve given up hope, but it took decades, and I still waste hours.

    For non-comedic fiction, if I reach a point at which I no longer care what happens to any of the characters, the book goes in the donation box forthwith. This may be your best bet here. Ask yourself whether anything which might happen to the charactes would be worth hanging around to find out about.

    I do have a specific set of rules for mysteries, but they only work for series. If I eventually turn out to have been 30 pages or 15 minutes ahead of the detective in spotting a major clue or if a “major clue” turns out to stem from the author’s ignorance, the series graces my home no more. (Word to beginning authors: have a well-informed friend fact-check your manuscript. It’s painfully evident that these days your publisher will not.)

    As for being an old fogey, it is perfectly legitimate to mourn the lapse in manners and the demise of the drive-in movie–or any number of other deficiencies of the 21st Century–so long as one remembers the improvements as well. Those who think everything was better in the distant past are cordially invited to drink a thick milk shake through a paper straw–or to read a 5th carbon.

    robert_piepenbrink

    11 Feb 09 at 5:14 pm

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