I’m trying to figure out what it is exactly I want to get out of reading whole books. Is a book a challenge? A project? Is completing it really that important? Or is it something to draw specific information from, and once you’ve either gotten that information or realize the book doesn’t have that information, then you drop it? I’ve been wondering about this, because I’m the type who really needs to complete a book to feel like I’ve “got it”. But I also don’t want to waste my time with books that don’t mean anything to me or that I find just plain bad.
Two books this year have driven me to the point where I have to question how important it is for me to finish: Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City. Both books, coincidentally, by white dudes about white people doing very white things—romanticizing a professor sleeping with his student, eating cheese-based casseroles with mayo in the Midwest, playing around with overseas stock ventures, architecture, trying to outdo the Europeans, and killing people. This is one facet of why I’m drawn away from this material. Goddamnit, I’ve read this before and I don’t really need to read it again.
Yet another more central problem stems from these authors’ specific writing styles. Franzen, while praised as one of the great voices in American literature, comes off smug and condescending to me. It’s fine to write about unlikable characters doing unlikable things (heck it’s what drew me to the book in the first place), but it’s another situation entirely to wallow like a voyeur in this unlikability. He isn’t concerned with exploring his characters. His novel flow like a series of reader-aggravating situations, whose main intention is to get some kind of literary schadenfreude, a sort of high-minded soap opera that rejects the notion that it’s trashy because the prose is more complex.
I don’t need a novel to be pedantic or to have some great message or meaning, but I think it’s excruciating for a novel to be so detached. The Corrections doesn’t really care about the world it details. Franzen is just capitalizing on idea of a dark underbelly beneath upper-middle class Americana without actually giving a shit about it. We’re simply meant to find an elitist pleasure in how dumb and self-centered these humans are, follow them as they continue to be dumb and self-centered and move on with a pretentious sense that most (white, upper-middle class) people are of the same ilk in real life.
In this way, Franzen encourages a mean-spirited outlook on American culture. One gets the sense of him observing it but being in no way connected to it. The content of the writing feels disingenuous—there’s no feeling, no spirituality, no connection to anything real. Nothing beyond smirking at how dumb his little creations are, how edgy his narrative can get while still within the comfortable confines of American trademark settings. I can’t think how anyone could read The Corrections and feel fulfilled, feel like they understand the world more, feel like they can observe with more clarity. I can only conclude that a reader who enjoyed The Corrections will probably assume that Franzen’s creations in some way reflect reality. In turn, they will feel that they are in some way above these edgy, dark and dumb creatures of the white upper-middle class American variety, and will feel entirely more single-mindedly cynical about the human condition than is mentally conducive.
The situation is a bit different in The Devil in the White City. While I think it is a well-written book, and that under the right context its subject matter might actually be quite readable, I can’t get through it with Erik Larson’s particular writing style. I don’t get novelized history. I enjoy a good narrative in my history books, but writing history like a novel means attempting to get the reader to identify with the subject far more than is objectively possible. I prefer the writing to move from broad to narrow and back again in history—in my ideal vision of this book, Larson would be more concerned with the larger culture surrounding US urban architecture in the early 1890s, more concerned with Chicago’s history at large, more concerned with how fairs had been utilized in the US and how the current world’s fair both aligned and diverged from that. He would also focus more on the general patterns of urban serial killers in the nineteenth century before centering on H.H. Holmes. Because really, I don’t see the value in knowing what Holmes might have been smelling in Chicago on a particular day. I don’t need the constant descriptions of his piercing blue eyes. That doesn’t interest me so much as either the events themselves or their ripple effects. I don’t get a holistic picture of life in the Midwest in the 1890s with Larson’s writing.
I don’t think my ideal approach is mutually exclusive to a compelling narrative. Rick Perlstein, in his book on conservative American political history circa 1970s, The Invisible Bridge, manages to teach the reader a great deal about Ronald Reagan without actually attempting to tell the story from his point-of-view. He mingles facts with emotional impressions offered by journals of family members and associates, not to mention Reagan’s own memoirs, yet he avoids the novelistic trappings of Larson by making this history both an analysis and a narrative. It doesn’t dwell, understands its position as a history book and maintains readable prose. Larson’s work lacks this equilibrium. It is far too much a novel, history almost as an afterthought. There is no analysis of the events, no connection to a broader American history. I gained maybe some knowledge from the 100-ish pages I managed to read, but really it wasn’t enough, and I felt like there could have been better uses of my time.
Conclusion: If you have had to think about it as hard as I have, and have found that reading a book is not enjoyable and you can’t see yourself gaining much more from it, then, well, maybe consider dropping it. Not to devalue the authors’ work, but your time is more valuable to you than their writing. Sometimes it really just doesn’t have any relevance to you.