The Book Meme: Day 11

Day 11 - A book that disappointed you

Some books pleasantly surprise you (as seen on Day 10) but some, inevitably, will disappoint you. The situations in which you experience disappointment are often much like those that create the pleasant surprise. You may be assigned such a book, or agree to read it for a club, or accept a recommendation.

There is, however, one category of book that is much more likely to result in disappointment than delight: the sequel. If you disliked a book, you are unlikely to pick up the next volume, even if the second is an improvement on the first. By contrast, if you really liked a book, there's a good chance you'll want to read another in the series, and that may very well end up disappointing you. 

I can point to Larry Niven's Ringworld as a favorite SF novel, and when I read its follow-up, The Ringworld Engineers, I was still fairly happy, though it wasn't quite up to the original. Nonetheless, when The Ringworld Throne appeared a few years later, I found it a real chore to read. The basic ideas Niven had brought up in the first volumes--variously evolved hominids, stepping disks for teleporting, and six-syllable names like Halrloprillalar and Kawaresksenjajok, to name a few--were explored in excruciating detail, rather than incorporated into an exciting narrative. 

I was similarly hopeful when I found a paperback of a book called Tales from Watership Down, in which Richard Adams offered stories about the rabbits who had so captivated me in the original Watership Down (not to mention a couple of tales of El-Ahrairah). I'd consider WD just about perfect, a book whose details still seem fresh in my mind forty-odd years later, but Tales was an utter disappointment. I read it only twenty years ago, and nothing about it has stuck with me except a vague wish that I hadn't read it.

When a writer sets the bar high with the first book, it's much easier to come up short on the next. That's one reason why I find Terry Pratchett's Discworld books so remarkable: they actually got better as he went along. Small Gods and Feet of Clay (the 13th and 19th novels in the series, respectively) are far superior to The Colour of Magic (the first).

The "high bar" idea also works for writers even when no sequel is involved. After you've read a few books and come to trust a writer, you're going to expect everything that writer puts out to be at least as good as the last one. And it may well fall short. After Jim Crace's Quarantine was fired across my bow by my wife, who made me read the first paragraph and hooked me, I dove into everything Crace had published and gorged myself. Being Dead was simply brilliant, Arcadia fascinating, The Gift of Stones startling and original, etc. When I picked up Genesis, his tale of a man who impregnates any woman he sleeps with, I had high hopes. But I couldn't finish the book. Ordinarily I would feel no guilt about that at all, but this was Jim Crace, dammit. He's a good writer--a trustworthy writer. He wouldn't leave me unfulfilled this way!

But he had.

This is why I am almost certainly never going to read Joseph Heller's Closing Time.

I can't really consider most of required reading I disliked to be disappointing. For one thing, though I trusted my teachers to assign us worthwhile reading, I never expected to like any assignment intensely; it was schoolwork, after all. (This may be due to the old "Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do" principle.) As I mentioned before, I've only belonged to one book club, and I had no expectations attached to any of Ms. Rashkis's selections for it, so nothing could fall short. I suppose I could point to my days contributing to Readerville.com, where I read a few books that didn't excite me as much as I'd hoped based on others' opinions.

Oddly, though, the only one that bothered me was A Dead Man in Deptford by Anthony Burgess, his novel of Christopher Marlowe, and even that wasn't because it was a bad book. I had been in a lengthy argument with an anti-Stratfordian on the site, and she had offered Burgess's book as one I should read if I wanted to understand why she thought Marlowe had written Shakespeare's works. Being open to evidence and favoring reasoned debate, I read it--and discovered it to be a perfectly serviceable novelization of Marlowe's life that makes no mention of writing under Shakespeare's name. It doesn't even theorize that Marlowe survived the 1693 tavern brawl that killed him and kept writing for another two decades. When I confronted my Marlovian acquaintance about the book, she simply said that it had somehow been instrumental in her coming around on the authorship issue and offered no further evidence. In that regard, I was disappointed by the novel, and I remain a Stratfordian.

But recommendations by random strangers on the internet are very different from recommendations by people you know and trust, and a number of those over the years pointed me toward a particular book. They included Bland Simpson, author, playwright, performer, and longtime director of UNC's Creative Writing Program. Back when I was taking his English 35 class in 1983 or so, Bland had suggested that I really ought to read a novel by Walker Percy called The Moviegoer. I'd heard of it, as pretty much anyone on a college campus in the South had heard of it, but I was tied up with other schoolwork and did not track down a copy. It took me some years to find the time and the proper mood to give the book a try, but in early 2006, with a few days of Christmas break still left, I decided it was time to read Percy. And I did. And nothing. Happened.

The tale of Binx Bolling is one I should relate to. I, too, have been an educated young Southern man without a clear direction in life, one searching for meaning and a way to connect with the greater universe. But for whatever reason, I could find nothing in Binx's tale but an increasingly strong desire to smack him. A passive protagonist can make for compelling reading--Stevens in The Remains of the Day comes to mind--but there was nothing compelling here. I had come to the book expecting a transformative experience, and what I got was a pleasantly well-written account of traveling aimlessly around the Gulf Coast. I was, in the words of Otto, from A Fish Called Wanda, "Okay... okay... disapPOINTed!"

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on July 16, 2018 7:30 AM.

The Book Meme: Day 10 was the previous entry in this blog.

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