Nine Books I Never Finished

To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf

I'm sure you've all started reading books that, for whatever reason, you didn't complete. Usually I'm pretty good about finishing, even when I don't care for the book (which is the same reason why I have only once walked out of a bad movie), but here are nine cases where I gave up.

  1. DUNE by Frank Herbert. In 1984, when I was fully entrenched in the BBS scene – sort of a pre-Web precursor to social media – I managed to coax more than 60 of my "modem friends" to attend an event I was celebrating for no particular reason: the opening night of Dune, David Lynch's adaptation of Frank Herbert's sci fi classic. (Hey, I was 14.) None of us cared much for the movie, but in the months leading up to the screening, I thought it would be appropriate to try to tackle Herbert's immense tome. I failed, giving up in boredom and confusion by page 50.
  2. THE HOBBIT by J.R.R. Tolkien. Although the epithet "geek" has been proudly reclaimed by those once mocked by it, I still chafe at being called one, and here's why: I'm just not into geeky stuff. No Japanese animation, no role-playing games, no science fiction, and no damn fantasy. I learned this at seven when, inspired by the 1977 animated TV version of The Hobbit, I tried to read Tolkien's beloved novel and lost interest – again, probably by page 50.
  3. THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING by J.R.R. Tolkien. I tried again and failed again – no doubt for the same reasons, and at the same point of the book. This time it was after I became a fan of Ralph Bakshi's 1978 truncated animated version of the Lord of the Rings saga. Looking back, I was clearly more into animation than I was into Tolkien.
  4. TO THE LIGHTHOUSE by Virginia Woolf. One answer to the question "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is "Mark Tapio Kines". After hearing many of my pretentious CalArts classmates rave about Woolf's novel, I picked up a cheap paperback a few years after college. I found Woolf to be a gifted but exhausting writer, every single page plunging to the same harrowing emotional depths, with nary a gasp of fresh air. By page 70, I figured it was going to be more of the same for the rest of the novel, and put it down for good.
  5. THINNER by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman). My high school had a mandatory "reading hour" once a week, where each student had to bring a book from home – or borrow one from the teacher – and read it quietly for 60 minutes. Any book was allowed, which was a nice policy. I once brought my mom's paperback of Thinner and enjoyed it over several weeks. Unfortunately, I misplaced the book with just 20 pages left to go, and I never took the time to seek it out again. It remains the only Stephen King I've ever read.
  6. MAN'S FATE by Andre Malraux. In 2001, I dated a very literate woman who lived in Paris, and she gave me this 1933 French novel about the first Communist revolution in China. Although this copy was in English, it retained Malraux's original title La Condition Humaine, which I figured was directly translated as The Human Condition. I didn't know it was called Man's Fate in English until today, when I sat down to write this list. Anyway, I couldn't have gotten any further than 20 pages into it. I liked it all right; I just got distracted by other things, I guess.
  7. MY ANTONIA by Willa Cather. My post-college years were filled with a yearning to catch up on all the classics that I never read in school. Some I loved, including Lolita, Catcher in the Rye, even behemoths like Of Human Bondage and An American Tragedy. So for a while, I requested classic books as Christmas presents. My mother, a writer, was happy to oblige, so she sent me My Antonia, one of her favorite novels. My mind started wandering about 10 pages in. Sorry Mom!
  8. TOM JONES by Henry Fielding. See above entry, only replace My Antonia with Tom Jones.
  9. THE WORDY SHIPMATES by Sarah Vowell. There's a funny story behind this: Sarah Vowell, author of historical nonfiction, is a frequent This American Life contributor whose strange voice got her cast as Violet in The Incredibles. A year or so ago, she held an intimate reading/signing for The Wordy Shipmates, her study of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, around the corner from my house. I was a big fan of her earlier work, like Assassination Vacation and The Partly Cloudy Patriot, but I confess that I found Shipmates deadly dull and quit halfway through it. Of course I couldn't tell Ms. Vowell that! In fact, as I approached the signing table with my copy of Partly Cloudy Patriot, I downright lied to her face when I told her that I owned a copy of The Wordy Shipmates but had loaned it out to a friend. The truth was that I'd sold Shipmates months earlier. I don't often lie to people, much less famous writers, but there you go.