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Monday, March 29, 2010

That One Book: The Ultimate 'To Be Read'

What is the one book you have on your shelf that you've never read, but have always intended to? You know, that single book that actually stares you down when you approach your "to be read" shelf to select your next novel? That One Book that makes you feel like an uncultured dolt for never having cracked its cover?

I'm quite certain every reader has that That One Book. And no matter the reader, The Book usually has some commonalities. It's considered a classic. It's really long. And a general reader would consider it dull, difficult or all-but-impenetrable. Books like War and Peace, Infinite Jest, The Satanic Verses and Ulysses are oft-cited examples of That One Book. 

For me, The Book is Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon. I've had it on my shelf for more than five years, ever since I read somewhere that my favorite writer David Foster Wallace counted Pynchon and his opus as huge influences. I even purchased a reading guide that's faithfully kept the novel company on the shelf, waiting for the day I'll take them both down together.

If you're not familiar, Gravity's Rainbow takes place during the Blitz of London in 1944 and 1945. The novel clocks in at 784 postmodern pages, and is often considered Pynchon's seminal work. It's also considered one the most inaccessible books published in the English language, due to near-constant time and narrative shifts and obscure references that would make even Dennis Miller lose his mind. My friend Brad says he's started Gravity's Rainbow three separate times, giving up each time and literally burning the book after his third attempt. Despite its relative inaccessibility, it's also considered one of the best novels ever published, winning the National Book Award in 1974 and finding its way onto just about every Best of the 20th Century lists, including Time's.

So you know what? I'm going to start it now. I've read two Vince Flynn thrillers in the last month, so I definitely need to do some penance for my literary "sins." Besides, reading Gravity's Rainbow is my one and only literary goal for 2010. But I'm going to read it slowly (and in the background of this blog, so don't worry about having to slog through dozens of Gravity's Rainbow posts) and try my absolute best to understand as much of it as I can. I've heard people sometimes read books like War and Peace in 10-page-per-day chunks, just to make sure they're staying disciplined and keeping at it. That sounds like a good plan to me. So, without further ado, "A screaming comes across the sky...."

Wish me luck!

So, what is your Book? Why haven't you read It? Are you going to anytime soon, you uncultured dolt? ;) 

Also, anyone who has conquered Gravity's Rainbow, and can offer any tips or advice, I'd be eternally grateful! 

Finally, one last heads-up that if you're interested in winning a copy of Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs, details on the giveaway are here. Deadline for entry is this Wednesday, March 31.

30 comments:

  1. In fact, mine is War and Peace. I even moved it from the shelf to my desk. You know, to keep it handy for that sudden reading moment.

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  2. One of the books that has been on my TBR shelf the longest is The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving. I've always wanted to read it, but for some reason always choose other books instead, always thinking...I'll get to it. lol

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  3. Mine is Ulysses. I picked out the bits I needed for my undergrad but that was it. I call it 'my pregnancy project' so I plan on tackling it whenever/if I ever get pregnant.

    Reading Anna Karenina and LOVING IT SO HARD so maybe War and Peace should be added to my list!

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  4. My One Book is definitely Middlemarch. I've heard so many good things about it, but I'm slightly daunted by its length and huge cast of characters. I've had it for at least three years now.

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  5. I have a few actually: East of Eden, Anna Karenina, Les Miserables, Alexander Hamilton biography, In the First Circle, Drood and 2666 all count as THE BOOK for me :). I hear that most of those are pretty easy to get into though, so maybe I need a kick in pants too :)

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  6. Cancer Ward. The Idiot. And as I get older my ability to stick with long Russian novels seems to wane.

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  7. @ A Bookshelf Monstrosity, I'm with you on Middlemarch. I loved the first half, but got bogged down after that. I only have about two hundred pages left to get through. It's awesome, but looooong.

    My other Ultimate TBR is One Hundred Years of Solitude. I'm about a hundred pages into that one and I really want to be able to say that I've read it, but I don't want to actually have to read it because it's just so... Gabriel García Márquez.

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  8. Mine is The art of the Tale. So much Talent in there. I read a few and moved on, maybe I should give it another crack.

    I wish you luck.

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  9. Mine was Ulysses. It sat on my shelf for three years. I tried twice and could not get passed the first chapter. I finally broke down, bought a guide and read it one summer. Once I understood what plot entailed I was entranced. Now I just have books that sounded good when I purchased them, but now do not hold a lot of interest for me. I have rule I enacted two years ago. Each January I go through my TBR pile and weed out books that have sat for two years. It keeps my TBR pile to manageable chaos.

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  10. My book is Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I got it as a Christmas present like 10 years ago and read part of it, but then gave up.

    Infinite Jest was also on the list, but I finally read that one this summer. Take that, Book!

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  11. mine is foucault's pendulum by umberto eco. i'm not sure why i keep passing it over for other books on my TBR shelf. it's sat there for about 6 years, maybe i should just bite the damn bullet and pick it up already!

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  12. What a great question! Mine is King Hereafter, by Dorothy Dunnett. It's huge, the writing is small, and she is SUCH a dense writer...

    However, I have many books that fit this bill on my shelves... The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy is another one.

    It's strange because I often fall in love with massive volumes, though it takes me an inordinate amount of time to actually start READING them. For example, one of my favorite books of all time is A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel. That book is MASSIVE.

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  13. mine is Les Miserables although a large part of this is because for some odd reason I have real trouble pronouning it.

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  14. +JMJ+

    Oh, man! I'm bubbling over with Catholic guilt just thinking about that book I've been putting off--and it's not even a sin! LOL!

    The book is At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald. I bought it the night after my mother and I went to watch the movie 300. That's how long it has been waiting for me to read it.

    I've actually tried to read it a couple of times, but it never really caught my interest. What made me feel really bad lately was seeing that the colours on its spine had faded, from the direct sunlight that hits the spot on the bookcase where I happened to leave it for several months. It seems okay for old and read books to fade a little, but not for a virtually new book! =(

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  15. "My book" is definitely Ulysses. I read the Proteus section in college, and just haven't touched the whole thing.

    I tackled War and Peace last November, which was well worth the read.

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  16. Another vote for Middlemarch and I am attempting Anna Karenina(mainly due to the upcoming release of Android Karenina this spring,from the same folks who brought us Pride and Prejudice and Zombies)but if I had to pick just one "haven't read it yet" book, it would be Portrait of a Lady by Henry James.

    I have several Henry James novels that I've been meaning to get to(Wings of the Dove,The Golden Bowl,The American)and have only succeeded in completing Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller. I also have on hand a number of very long Fanny Burney novels(Cecilia,The Wanderer,Camilla)that I keep stopping and starting. Can't give up on Burney,her work was a major influence on Jane Austen so I must try again.

    Also,Vanity Fair-I have seen both a BBC miniseries and a major motion picture version of this story(even have an autographed movie poster of VF,signed by Reese Witherspoon)yet the book's allure somehow eludes me whenever I attempt to read it. Onward into the book breech ,folks:)

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  17. Whoa - hey, everyone, sorry I got a bit behind in responding to comments. It seems like the two winners are Ulysses and War and Peace, though there are a lot of interesting books mentioned, some of which I'm not familiar with at all (King Hereafter, At The Back of the North Wind).

    Anna Karenina, Middlemarch, Atlas Shrugged, and any Henry James novel definitely fit the bill as That One Book in my book.

    Thanks all for your comments - I really enjoyed this discussion!

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  18. I would have to say 'The Name of the Rose'. I've always wanted to read it; and last year, I received it for my birthday. And now, all it does is star me down whenever I approach the bookcase... and I pick out the book next to it or two or even three books down from it. I don't know what it is about it, but I just can't get myself to pick it up.

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  19. My dust collector is Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. I bought it because I heard it was the best Dickens novel.

    I watch the TV show LOST, and the book was mentioned by the character Desmond as the last book that he wanted to read before he died (supposedly it's that good) - so he carried it with him everywhere he went. I thought this would give me some motivation to plunge through it, but it was to no avail. I repeatedly read page ONE, and think, "Not today. . . "

    Oh well, maybe someday. Until then I guess it will keep collecting dust on my shelf.

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  20. Matthew ZimmermanMarch 31, 2010 at 6:01 PM

    I seriously need to read Don Quixote.

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  21. @Mozette - I actually conquered The Name of the Rose a few years ago (with the assistance of a guide book). I'm not gonna lie, it wasn't easy! It's about two medieval monks trying to solve a murder. But there's a WHOLE lot of window dressing, too - like a several-page theological debate on whether Jesus Christ laughed.

    @every - Hmmm - not familiar with that Dickens' book, but judging by the brief description on Wikipedia, it looks pretty tough - long and complicated, like many of the "best" That One Books. ;)

    @Matt - Well, you've been tilting at windmills for years, so it's high time you find out what that means! Blliinnng.

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  22. @Matt. Don Quixote is a great read. I promise you will not be sorry to have finally read it.

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  23. That's an easy question. Mine is The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake. I've had it sitting there forever.

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  24. Good luck with Pynchon! :) People like to tell me he's a genius, but none so far has given me proof, haha.

    My Have-To-Read? It's a toss up between the complete stories of Chekhov, and the complete stories of Hemingway. I've made a tiny progress with Chekhov, though. Sigh. Someday...

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  25. More votes for Gormenghast and Foucault's Pendulum!

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  26. Mine is a toss up between, oddly enough, Gravity's Rainbow and Ulysses. Both books have been on my shelves for 5+ years, and I have never even opened either one. My eyes just skip right over them when I'm looking for a new book to read, like a magic invisibility spell has been placed on them.

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  27. I urge everyone who is holding off on Middlemarch to take the plunge. I reread Middlemarch this summer, and I still consider it one of my top ten - maybe my favorite book of all time. Books still on my TBR List: War and Peace; Decline and Fall by Gibbon; Finnegan's Wake; and Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow...

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  28. I read Infinite Jest this last summer and enjoyed War and Peace but i have had Ulysses on my shelf for 30 years and can't get past the first chapter. One of these days

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  29. Ulysses, Gravity's Rainbow and Swann's Way are on my list. I bought Ulysses about a year ago but haven't read a page. I've read a couple of chapters of Gravity's Rainbow, and while I didn't find it hard to read, I just couldn't get into it. I had to recheck Swann's Way so many times from the library that I just ended up buying it. I WILL read and finish them someday. Maybe I'll try to tackle one of them over the winter.

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  30. Mine is "Walden." I've read sections of it and enjoyed much of what I've read, but it's daunting to me for some reason... I really need to get serious about it.

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