The Sun Singer's Travels

Malcolm R. Campbell's World

How do you feel when you pick up a much-loved book and can’t finish it?

Years ago, I read all of Virginia Woolf’s fiction and, along with James Joyce, she probably influenced how I see novels and styles and writing techniques more than any other author.

DallowayWith nothing new on the nightstand to read, I fetched an old favorite off the shelf and looked forward to reading it: Mrs. Dalloway.

I looked forward to it and it started fine, just as I remembered, rather like a conversation with an old friend one hasn’t seen for years that also starts out fine. But then, I began to have trouble staying focused on the book. It wasn’t so much that I already knew the plot, it was more than everything that drew me to the novel years ago was pushing me away now.

I put Mrs. Dalloway back on the shelf. Have I slowly changed? Was this simply the wrong time of the year for reading the book? The wonderful blur of the novel and its multiple themes was, bluntly, trying my patience.

I mourn the loss of the book, not just because it’s not simply one much-loved book I’ll probably never pick up again, but partly because it makes me afraid of taking another Woolf book off the shelf and finding that it no longer resonates with me either.

In general, my reading tastes haven’t changed. Many people love one genre while they’re in college and then discard it for something different ten or fifteen years later. Mostly, I like the same kinds of books I’ve always liked. Makes me wonder if Woolf herself is haunting me with an armload of nasty little games. Naah, that can’t be it.

What about you? Have you gone back to some of your much-loved books after they’ve gathered dust on the shelf for years and looked forward to savoring them again only to find that you are having to fight to stay with the story.

There’s something sobering about this that I can quite put my finger on.

–Malcolm

collegeAvenueCoverMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of the collection of short stories and poems called “College Avenue,” released on Kindle several days ago.

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4 thoughts on “How do you feel when you pick up a much-loved book and can’t finish it?

  1. I think we read ourselves into books. What resonates one time is a reflection of our thoughts, goals, dreams, experience. But we learn, our goals change over time, and though our reading tastes don’t change, what resonates in a book does change.

    There have been several such awakenings in my life. I used to love YA books because so many of them were about growing, finding one’s place in the world, seeing things with new eyes, and then all of a sudden one day when I was in my forties, they seemed puerile. And there were other situations, such as stories of girls getting pregnant and having to decide what to do, or mothers coping with adolescents, or divorce, or so many normal subjects that have nothing to do with me. Since I knew those problems were not mine, I couldn’t read myself into the story (had no interest in figuring out what I would do in situations that would always be hypothetical.) Hence, they didn’t resonate. It gets harder as I grow older to find books that resonate, so my expectations from books are much less.

    I stay away from the books I once loved because I prefer the memory of having loved them to the feeling of loss that comes with seeing a different reality.

    • Identification with the protagonist or some other major character probably factors in strongly as a reason we remember, enjoy and/or find a book meaningful. We probably enjoy other books that meet other needs, but this simpatico relationship with the main character would certainly account for why some books seem dull or unintelligible years later when we have gone through the kinds of life changes you mentioned. Quite possibly I enjoyed “Mrs. Dalloway” years ago for other reasons because it’s hard to imagine my relating to any of the characters; perhaps it was Woolf’s style/technique. Perhaps that was enough the first time out but not enough any more.

      • For me it’s not so much that I identify with the character but that I put myself into the book as myself, wondering what I would do in their situation. It was one of the big disappointments of reading when most no longer brought me along because I knew I would never be in that situation. The biggest disappointment of reading, of course, was discovering that books weren’t organic, that fallible folk wrote them. Obviously, I knew authors wrote them, but I somehow figured authors were special, that they had some sort of beeline to truth. Now I know they are a dime a dozen — if that — and most don’t even tell their own truth.

  2. I wonder those kinds of things, too. Perhaps “identify with” is too strong, implying that we see ourselves as that character or like that character. Perhaps “empathy” is better, for me anyway, because after all I am walking in their shoes and seeing events unfold through their eyes. I don’t worry about the dime-a-dozen authors any more than I worry about the dime-a-dozen people in other fields–unless they turn into criminals and/or assholes. I’m not disappointed in the authors whose books I like.

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