Late to a really great party

by Maria on April 4, 2019

Book thread: Henry’s yesterday about Linda Nagata also mentioned Robert Charles Wilson’s ‘Spin’, a thoroughly brilliant novel I feel like the last person in the world to have read. Mysteriously, an unread copy of it had been shuttling back and forward between my ‘shelve’ and ‘chuck’ piles – neither Ed nor I had bought it. I picked it up last month and my delight in reading it was only very slightly marred by a wish that I’d read it long ago, especially before other books that are essentially paler versions. That reminded me of one of my aunts who pressed Middlemarch on me when I was 18. For reasons I can’t defend, I only actually read the book at about 40. Greater regrets with this one, because it really does feel like one of those books you read repeatedly through life, concentrating on or being open to different aspects corresponding to how we all change and grow. (and also shrink)

Then I’m reminded of a very dear friend who’d never read a Russian novel. Oh, the evenings we spent, asking ‘But Anna Karenina, you must have read that? No? Really none? How about Crime and Punishment?” Then a couple of years ago it turned out he’d gone away in between times and has basically now read every classic Russian novel ever translated into English.

So, shoot. What books have you resisted for years, that turned out to be just as brilliant as everyone had said?



Doug T 04.04.19 at 5:15 pm

Middlemarch is probably my first choice as well. I avoided pretty much all the big 19th century English novels through my 20’s and 30’s, preferring modern lit. But I picked it up back when Ta-Nehisi Coates was raving about it on his Atlantic blog, and loved it. Since then I’ve started working my way through the back catalog, taking at least one on my beach vacation each summer. The past few years I read Daniel Deronda, The Mill on the Floss, and David Copperfield at the beach, and Adam Bede, Silas Marner, and Wuthering Heights at other times. (Good, OK, Great, Very Good, Bad, and Terrible, respectively.) This year I have Vanity Fair already lined up and waiting on my shelf, and have been casting glances over at Jane Eyre, trying to catch her eye.

I resisted Infinite Jest for a much shorter time, but was highly skeptical about the whole thing. Of course it turned out to be great fun when I finally did read it 5 or 6 years after it came out.


Maria 04.04.19 at 5:20 pm

Ha! I’m reading the Mill on the Floss at the mo and not wholly loving it. But I managed Felix Holt, the Radical so I’m sure I’ll get through. On Daniel Deronda, there’s a fantastic dialogue between A.S. Byatt and Ignes Sodre about the characters from a psychoanalytic perspective that made me retroactively love it a lot more than I had:


Jacob Christensen 04.04.19 at 7:16 pm

I wouldn’t say I resisted reading it, it was more a case of buying a book, putting it aside, and then finding it on the shelf and thinking … hmm, I really should read that one now. So, last December I finally read Jens Smærup Sørensen’s Mærkedage (not translated into English as far as I know. The title is a bit tricky – it means family occasions but it also points at days where the impact of society makes itself felt) which follows the stories of two families in a small village in the north of Jutland from the 1930s to the turn of the century. It is not chronologically told so it is a little difficult to follow the characters and their relationships, but it is a really fascinating read. You might want to learn Danish because of the author.

Anyway, the original price tag was still on the book. I had bought it in … October 2008.

PS to Chris: Haven’t forgotten about the book challenge. Maybe I’ll get around to it in 2029…


PeteW 04.04.19 at 7:16 pm

Read Crime and Punishment for the first time a few weeks go after a couple of failed attempts. It’s brilliant, but hard to put your finger and why or how. It just gets stronger and stronger as it goes on, and by the end is as good as anything you’ll read.

Have never managed to get beyond through the first few pages of War and Peace, Nostromo, Ulysses or DeLillo’s Underworld. Someone please tell me I’m not missing out.


Hidari 04.04.19 at 7:33 pm

I am currently reading Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which is very good despite all the people who say it’s very good. I resisted it because when one reads a list of people who have spoken highly of it, one is inclined to be sceptical (and it’s modern, to boot). But it’s actually very good.


Maria 04.04.19 at 8:55 pm

Hidari, I’ve resisted My Brilliant Friend for all those reasons and recently begun to think I’d actually quite like to read it.

I’ve not finished the others, PeteW, but I know I’ve finished Underworld yet all I remember of it is the amazing baseball sequence at the beginning, so …

Jacob, that Danish book really sounds intriguing. Hopefully someone will translate it to English, soon.


Niall McAuley 04.04.19 at 10:50 pm

I avoided Ulysses for years because it was said to be very highbrow and artsy and difficult.

But no, it is brilliant and funny, easy to see why it is so famous.


Paul Davis 04.05.19 at 2:33 am

What books have you resisted for years, that turned out to be just as brilliant as everyone had said

It would be more efficient, methinks, to invert the question: what books have been raved about by everyone as brilliant, and you just didn’t experience that when reading them? I say this because just about everytime I read a book for which there was broad “brilliant” consensus, it was utterly obvious why that was the case (and why it was true).

The saddest part of brilliant literature is how often and how frequently its idiomatic use of language dates it and consigns it to the dustbin of history, appealing only to literary-centric folk rather than the much broader population that would benefit so much from reading it if only they could grok the language.


Collin Street 04.05.19 at 4:28 am

It would be more efficient, methinks, to invert the question: what books have been raved about by everyone as brilliant, and you just didn’t experience that when reading them?

Efficient for what?

Identifying bad books is a game not worth the candle, obviously.

More interestingly… people want to maximise the quality of the books they read. There’s no shortage of potentially-good books [publishers produce dozens, maybe even hundreds of books each year and have been doing so for at least fifteen years now], more than most people can read: this means the ideal approach is a high-false-negative heuristic that minimises the chances of letting a bad one through. A whitelist rather than a blacklist approach, in other words: “this book is reputed to be good but is in fact bad” might carry more information-theory information, but turning that information into the result you want is more work.

[I was severely impressed by War of the Worlds and Cold Comfort Farm.]


bad Jim 04.05.19 at 6:06 am

A book languished on a shelf for years until I started binge-reading after the last election. I’d neglected it under the assumption that it was a somewhat unwelcome gift, but when I picked it up – Nicholson Baker, “Human Smoke” – it was obvious that I’d bought it.

Back when there was a bookstore in town I would sometimes buy books without intending to read them immediately. I like shopping, and shopping for books is particularly painless. Coetzee, for example, is a prestigious title; if there’s a new one I’ll buy it, to keep the bookstore in business and to bolster the enterprise of difficult fiction. He’s not exactly a joy to read, though, and for years I had enough domestic difficulty to find the prospect distinctly unattractive.

And so my reading fell behind my buying; the books stacked up and the bookstore went out of business. I have a big new TV that I never turn on. I hang out online. Most days the news is more surprising, and more challenging, than fiction.


Adam Roberts 04.05.19 at 7:12 am

Since people are mentioning Middlemarch I’m going to flag up the ongoing Middlemarch Project: a bunch of scholars and regular folk are reading the novel in its monthly installments, in step with their original publication, and blogging about it (in honour of Eliot’s 200th birthday) here..


Maria 04.05.19 at 9:12 am

Oh my goodness that is a treasure trove, Adam. Thanks for posting the link!


Matt 04.05.19 at 10:57 am

I don’t think anyone told me they were brilliant (at least, I don’t remember that), but for a long time I thought I should read some of Gorky’s books, because he seemed like such an interesting guy, even from the fairly small parts I knew. (He was super important in preserving lots of cultural heritage in St. Petersburg from the excesses of the early revolution, and stepped in to help lots of artists and writers when they had trouble with the early Soviet state.) But, for some reason I didn’t think I’d like him – I expected him to be turgid and dry, I guess. When I finally read him, I was blown away with how good it was – just amazing stuff. And, he was even more interesting than I’d thought. I’d highly recommend his autobiographical works in particular.


kingless 04.05.19 at 11:12 am

Ok, ok, I’ll read Middlemarch, and probably get the audiobook since there’s a version that Juliet Stevenson narrates. More bibliodebt from CT, which I admit I don’t regret. After all, I first heard of Elena Ferrante here. Thanks! And sorry, PeteW, can’t say you aren’t missing out, at least for 3 of the 4 you mentioned. I’ve only read Underworld once.


Doug T 04.05.19 at 11:46 am

Thanks for the link Maria–that book looks very interesting. I’ll have to track down a copy. And thanks also to Adam–I will have to go back through the material at your link as well. And I’ll throw my own recommendation for Ferrante out there as well. My Brilliant Friend I thought was just good, but the middle two volumes were tremendous.

PeteW–I am comfortable reassuring you that you aren’t missing that much on Underworld. As Maria noted, the opening section is absolutely brilliant. But the rest of it is pretty scattershot and uneven. He tried to paint a picture of an age with a patchwork quilt of stories, and it didn’t really work for me. Then again, I’m a generation or two too young to be in the real sweet spot for the times he was chronicling.

Ulysses left me cold–I tend to think there’s a reason the more extreme modernist stream-of-consciousness experiments turned out to be a stylistic dead end. A lot of the techniques were picked up an incorporated by later writers, but hardly any in the more radical forms that Faulkner and Joyce pushed to. Having said that, even I thought there were some really great bits, and so many people love and admire it that it’s probably worth at least an attempt. The fact that I didn’t like it has as much to do with me as it, I think. (I’d give the same review for Gravity’s Rainbow, which mostly flew over my head, I think.)

Tolstoy is great, but I’d recommend starting with his novellas (Death of Ivan Ilyich, Kreutzer Sonata, etc.). They are much more manageable and equally as brilliant as his more famous big tomes.

I also realized, embarrassingly, that the book I meant to throw shade at in my first post was not Silas Marner, but Ethan Frome. Which is in fact neither 19th century nor English. In my defense, I did read it in a Penguin Classics edition.

I resisted reading the Sandman by Gaiman for years and years, since it seemed like it was just for goths, and in my youth I worried about things like that. I finally gave in and decided to start reading it to see what the fuss was about. Bought the next issue, which was pretty good. And then the next one, which turned out to be the very last issue of the run. But going back through the graphic novels, it was even better than everyone said.

On the topic of great books that I’m still resisting, there’s Stendhal (tried to start Charterhouse of Parma twice and never got more than a chapter in), Rabelais, and Don Quixote. All of which it seems like I would like, but can’t shake my irrational skepticism and take the plunge.


JimV 04.05.19 at 1:54 pm

This probably doesn’t count, but at about age 13 I found Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” (in our small-town library) and thought it too dull to finish. Much later in life I got back to it, and he put me in the boat and I caught the big fish I needed to succeed and then the sharks came and took it away.

Speaking of Hemingway, he had several severe concussions, including two plane-crashes. I’m guessing he probably had CTE when he killed himself.


Steve 04.05.19 at 9:51 pm

What is it about Middlemarch?! I resisted reading it for years, only to find myself on holiday with nothing else to read, and ended up having to give copious apologies to my wife for not following her recommendation before. (I gulped it down – my memory of the beach in Tenedos is suffused with Dorothea and Causabon. Am I alone on having this odd thing where books I have read when abroad get mixed into my memories of the trip? For me, Pakistan is always mixed up with War and Peace…) But why does everyone else also have Middlemarch resistance syndrome? Is it the name? Some sense it is dull and worthy? The long-lasting effect of Mill on the Floss?


Bruce Baugh 04.05.19 at 11:15 pm

Oh, hey, since War of the Worlds got mentioned…last year, Audible put out a new version, with a lightly abridged version of the text (cut by about a quarter) with a bunch of new interstitial and background music by Jeff Wayne, clearly having fun revisiting his style for his War of the Worlds album back when. It’s a delight.


John Quiggin 04.06.19 at 2:50 am

@JimV I was made to read The Old Man and the Sea at the same age at school, presumably on the theory that it was short and had no big words, but still qualified as great literature (AFAICT, Silas Marner plays a similar role in the US education system). I had exactly your reaction, but never got around to revisiting Hemingway, having been put off by Bellow, Mailer etc with whom I (perhaps unfairly) lump him.


JanieM 04.06.19 at 4:20 pm

What books have you resisted for years, that turned out to be just as brilliant as everyone had said?

Not “everyone,” but some time ago a friend recommended David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green. I dipped into it in the B&N cafe, found that it didn’t grab me at all, and put it back on the shelf. A few years later I tried again and loved it.

Then I did the same thing with Cloud Atlas, although the first time I tried it I disliked it even more (and for different reasons) than I had Black Swan Green the first time.

Now I’ve read and reread Mitchell’s books, all except for Number9Dream, which I still can’t seem to finish.

There’s a repeated motif in Mitchell’s stories (which I am now sensitized to in other authors) of a parting between a parent(/parent figure) and a child — that haunts me.


I also resisted My Brilliant Friend, in part because of specific people who were praising it to the skies. I finally tried it … and disliked it so much I put it right back down.


Middlemarch: still my all-time fave. Thanks to Adam Roberts for the tip and the link!


Theophylact 04.06.19 at 6:11 pm

Ursula K. Le Guin ‘s Always Coming Home. I bought it over 30 years ago, read a few pages, and set it aside. When we moved house in 2017, I found it in the stacks of books that I had to decide about keeping or giving to charity. I decided to try reading it again.
It’s fucking brilliant.


Jim F 04.06.19 at 6:13 pm

I spent a good chunk of last fall reading two books — Michael Moorcock’s Mother London and Iain Sinclair’s Downriver — whose tipped-in cash register receipts revealed that I’d bought them two years apart … from a bookstore that closed in 1999.

(Yes, you detect a theme. They live in the TBR midden for so long because they’re waiting for the right context.)


bad Jim 04.07.19 at 8:23 am

One of the long neglected books on my shelf, and I have no idea how it got there, was one by Terry Pratchett. It was, of course, a great deal of fun.


Jim Buck 04.07.19 at 1:13 pm

Day-after day, during last year’s prolonged English summer, I would sit the morning in the garden, reading Finnegans Wake. I had recently claimed the passport and felt a duty to my Irish nieces ( who each sang the book’s praises) to overcome an inculcated derision towards Joyce’s novel. It started as a chore and quickly became an accumulation of joys–like having highly quality chocolate liquers popped into one’s mouth every half-minute or so. Each and every sentence sets up for a ten-pin strike and delivers a clatter of meaning. At times, the text seemed to seep out from the confines of its paper–and into my life, past and present. One morning, I found myself recalling a long-forgotten incident from my distant childhood. The recollecting occurred in parallel to my garnering of discrete and unrelated meanings from Joyce’s text. The uncanny thing is that when I left the book on the garden chair that very day, and walked down to a nearby strip of restaurants and takeaways, I bumped into the person central to my recollection. Our last previous encounter had occurred in 1965. Another incident of uncanniness was when I was sitting there reading and my wife was pestering me about something-or-other. I felt a pang of irritation, and then looked down to see Joyce’s very next sentence: ‘Duggel, Duggel’– and that happens to be a close approximation of my wife’s, rather unusual surname.
I reached the end of Finnegans Wake and wanted to begin it over again. I resisted that. This summer, I may have a go at Hegel.


MPAVictoria 04.07.19 at 7:49 pm

What a great topic Maria! My neighbourhood public school has a huge used book sale every fall that has to be seen to be believed. It attracts people from all over the region and there are tens of thousands of books to choose from. Every year I go and buy way too many books to add to the every growing collection in my spare room. This year I got a number of Nick Hornby books that I hadn’t yet read. I just finished Fever Pitch which, even though I am not a football fan at all, was a really excellent book about obsession and passion. It was also very funny. Worth a read if you have a chance.

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