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Publisher Throws Cracked Reading Glasses in the Ring

Bleary-Eyed Book Monger Joins Club and Breaks Rules, All Before Reading

I’ve decided to do something extraordinarily counterintuitive (and, well, just plain dumb) for an independent publisher who is quite literally swimming in manuscripts (and reveling in every dry ink-laden minute of it). I will hurtle my squat body forward, spare no idiom before my wine, throw four babies to the wind, out with sheets, caution, and the bath water, too–and participate in this week’s Literary Blog Hop, hosted by The Blue Bookcase, the book review blog for bookish people.

Even though this publisher’s blog does not “primarily feature book reviews of literary fiction or classic literature,” we do immensely enjoy hosting, facilitating and engaging in “general literary discussion,” so perhaps we won’t get booted from the Literary Blog Hop. If we do get the boot due to our irreverent tone and rule-breaking (and, yes, even ball-breaking) behavior, so be it. Our experience among the heavy hitters of the book blogging community was fun while it lasted.

This week’s question, submitted by Debbie Nance at Readerbuzz, is: What is the most difficult literary work you’ve ever read? What made it so difficult?

Instead of answering that excellent two-part question (or perhaps before answering it, depending on how long I ramble), let’s examine several literary works that I have not read and decide or at least rationalize, in an open forum, imprecisely the reasons that they have been so difficult for me to complete (er, crack open). These are the neglected stepchildren of my private library, the books that I have possessed for years with only the best intentions of curling up with them on the sofa and embracing their icy, crooked-nose brilliance on a cold winter’s night (or having them accompany me on a summer sojourn and immersing myself in their unseasonably warm, wisdom-laced waters).

But no, these are the books whose spines remain stiff, whose jackets remain unblemished, and whose words remain sadly, unforgivably unread. These are the literary albatrosses of my life. Not obvious classics like War and Peace, mind you, or Moby Dick, or Ulysses (all very admirable and popular choices among those who need to confess omissions of an egregious, sinful nature), but lesser known, critically acclaimed works of great intrinsic value, infinitesimal intellectual worth. Rich volumes of literature and contemporary wunderkinds that reside in me through the wonders of osmosis and the occasional flipping of pages … because I own them and they, like superior schoolyard bullies, tend to prod and bait me mercilessly as I pass their resting place on my shelf, engaging me in conversation and then promptly dismissing me as a knucklehead, a lost cause … knowing damn well that I haven’t actually read or attempted to understand a single one of them.

Why, you ask. I haven’t a clue.

These titles, in no particular order, are not among the piles of books on and next to my nightstand; these are among the unfinished books I move, and upon occasion, rotate to make room for other candidates. Lest I be misunderstood, these titles undoubtedly need to be read. And someday, perhaps, I will be in the proper frame of mind to read them. Until then, they remain utterly aloof and as inaccessible to me as a locked vault on frozen tundra.


1. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden: This 1952 work has eluded me to this point for reasons foreign to me for as far as my eyes can see. This ambitious saga of Steinbeck’s family history, all 601 pages of it in the 2002 Steinbeck Centennial Edition, begins with the simply stated fact: “The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.” For some reason, that sentence has always created an obstacle larger than any towering Sequoia tree. If this is “the book that brought Oprah’s Book Club back,” as it says on the 2003 Penguin Paperback cover, then I, like Groucho Marx, have no interest in joining “a club that would have someone like me for a member.”

2. Jack Kerouac’s Visions of Cody: An underground legend by the time it was finally published in 1972, Visions has been shrewdly marketed and strategically categorized by Penguin as a Non-Classic. I’ve read the scatter-shot, six-page introduction by Allen Ginsberg in the 1973 UK edition, but haven’t gotten past the opening line: “This is an old diner like the ones Cody and his father ate in, long ago, with that old-fashioned railroad car ceiling and sliding doors — the board where bread is cut is worn down fine as if with bread dust and a plane; the icebox (“Say I got some nice homefries tonight Cody!”) is huge brownwood thing with oldfashioned pull-out handles, windows, tile walls, full of lovely pans of eggs, butter pats, piles of bacon — old lunchcarts always have a dish of sliced raw onions ready to go on hamburgs.” Whew, no wonder I never made it past that opener.


3. Milan Kundera’s Immortality: Positioned as a Harper Perennial Modern Classic and just 20 years old, this too is a book, despite its alluring description of the character Agnes (“like Flaubert’s Emma or Tolstoy’s Anna”) that has escaped me as thoroughly as the meaning behind “the great themes of existence.”


4. Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks: I love the storytelling of Russell Banks and Affliction, Sweet Hereafter, and Rule of the Bone all stand tall and proud in my cases of fiction (yes, organized alphabetically by author), but I’m simply stumped by the challenge of reading about one of the most iconic figures in American history, the Che Guevara of his time. It’s a flaw in my DNA, I’m sure, and this too I someday shall overcome. Until then, I’ll gladly return to his masterful collection, The Angel on the Roof, again and again for inspiration.


5. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible: Another author whose collected works of short fiction, essays and poetry, I admire, but this novel has been as elusive to me as the holy grail. “Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.” Now that’s a great opening line. Have I given it a fair chance from there? No. Why, you ask. I haven’t a clue.

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About Dan Cafaro

Dan Cafaro is the founder and publisher of Atticus Books, a small press based in Madison, N.J. When Dan is not following his wife around the country, he is known to sit for long periods of time pondering how to live off the grid. Atticus Review is his first literary journal.

35 Awesome Comments So Far

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  1. Debnance at Readerbu
    November 11, 2010 at 4:39 pm #

    Welcome to the hop. Lovely response. I can think of any number of books I will most likely never read.

    Of course (and this is what keeps me from never saying never) I would have said that about The Three Musketeers for most of my life. Until I actually decided to read it. And loved it.

    • Dan Cafaro
      November 13, 2010 at 9:11 am #

      Thanks for the welcome, Deb. I'm learning, slowly, much too slowly, the limits of what one can absorb, but it's refreshing to have so many kindred souls respond in kind.

  2. Lisa Almeda Sumner
    November 11, 2010 at 5:04 pm #

    Isn't Rule of the Bone as perfect as a novel can be? Every year I read that book out loud to some truly ornery repeat offenders. I always begin by saying: I will stop any time you want me to. Inevitably, one non-reader comes forward to borrow the book. In this way I have very happily parted with half a dozen copies of the book (and stopped reading aloud before being fired). But I have to say you are making a gigantic mistake about East of Eden. If you don't love that book I will eat my hat.

    • Dan Cafaro
      November 13, 2010 at 9:15 am #

      Lisa,

      This exercise has caused me to think and rethink a few things. One of them is my absolute devotion to Rule of the Bone. I do think that novel is grossly underrated and should replace Salinger's Catcher in the Rye (there, I said it)as required reading for the adolescents in all of us. Thanks for helping me reaffirm this belief!

  3. Ingrid
    November 11, 2010 at 5:58 pm #

    Don't fret, Atticus Books, The Blue Bookcase welcomes you to the Literary Blog Hop with open arms. We are quite flattered that you chose to participate this week and delighted that you have contributed such a well-written and interesting post.

    • Dan Cafaro
      November 13, 2010 at 9:17 am #

      Ingrid,

      Your kind words warm my heart and give me hope that I'm not a lone voice in the publishing wilderness. Thanks for your inclusiveness…

  4. Alex
    November 11, 2010 at 6:38 pm #

    Good post. Of the five, the two I've read are both great–Immortality (The Joke is my favorite, I'm not sure why, but Immortality could be his best and Kundera's last before his "decline") and East of Eden (but I read it years ago). Fight for Your Long Day!

    • Dan Cafaro
      November 13, 2010 at 9:22 am #

      Dang, Alex, I'm fighting for both of our long days and, still, I'm trying to find the time to enjoy the lost art of immersion reading. Kundera's Immortality has now made it to the top of the pile, not merely next to my nightstand, but on the table itself (a promising development and one that I plan to see through)…

      • Alex
        November 14, 2010 at 8:24 am #

        Due to the name similarity, my father found Kundera quite early (relative to the good translations coming to the U.S.), but I've only read him in the past 5 or 6 years. I think I had The Joke with me the summer I was in South Korea drafting Duffleman, but I couldn't get into it. And that was my first time on Kundera. I have read it twice since; not a top favorite writer for me, but one I think about.

        And, yes, I hear you on time constraints–FFYLD!

  5. Leeswammes (Judith)
    November 12, 2010 at 12:56 am #

    It's my first time here, too and I was a little worried I'd be accepted in the Literary Blog Hop but I just reloaded the Blue Book Case page and my link is still there. Yay!

    East of Eden, how could you not read it? I loved the book when I read it (years ago, might not like it now, though). Re-read it, saw the movie. Read it again. Etc.

    The Poisonwood Bible, I know how you feel. I actually read this and was sort-of OK with it (but much prefer most of Kingsolver's other work). I wanted to re-read it recently, at least I planned to and mentioned it to other people. Then when it came to it, I didn't feel like it AT ALL.

    So I didn't re-read it. Reading is for pleasure!

    • Dan Cafaro
      November 13, 2010 at 9:26 am #

      Judith,

      East of Eden will NOT return to the dust bins of my bookshelves until I have finished it. It will remain beside my bed as a constant reminder that today should be the day I begin what I imagine will be a marvelous Steinbeck experience. Thanks for imploring me to do what must be done!

      • Leeswammes (Judith)
        November 13, 2010 at 9:36 am #

        Very good! I hope your Steinbeck experience will be fantastic. Well, I'm sure it will!

  6. Lisa
    November 12, 2010 at 3:44 am #

    Read the Poisonwood Bible, read The Poisonwood Bible. It's amazing (okay the second half drags a bit where Kingsolver really gets up on her soapbox)and the characters are incredible.

    • Dan Cafaro
      November 13, 2010 at 9:28 am #

      Lisa,

      I have to be honest. Among the 5 I have listed, this is the least likely of the bunch for me to tackle… perhaps I am just not worthy! Seriously, there are just some books that humble and intimidate simultaneously and this has become one of those titles for me. Maybe I'll come around… if not this in lifetime, then…

  7. gautami tripathy
    November 12, 2010 at 4:11 am #

    I have read a lot of classics in my school and college years. And some still remain my favorites. However, there are a few I could never get into..

    Here is my Literary Blog Hop post!

    • Dan Cafaro
      November 13, 2010 at 9:33 am #

      Gautami,

      Kudos to you for making it through War and Peace. Mrs Dalloway is still on my list of novels to complete before I shove off into the great, wide open… I love your blog's Kafka quote, which I'll repeat here, but wow, imagine only reading books that did that!

      "I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us." Franz Kafka

  8. Steve Himmer
    November 12, 2010 at 7:35 am #

    Great post, Dan.

    It's not the most difficult book I've read, but after three abandoned attempts over the years I've FINALLY managed to read (and enjoy) To The Lighthouse this week. I think I struggled with it because it's such a slow, immersive novel and for more than a decade I've done most of my reading commuting on the subway and it always felt like the wrong way to read that book.

    • Dan Cafaro
      November 13, 2010 at 9:38 am #

      I so look forward to delving into the works of Virginia Woolf at some point in my life that I wonder if the great anticipation of her words somehow will outlast my conquest… Leave it to me to own and enjoy Moments of Being, her previously unpublished autobiographical writings, but currently nothing else by her.

  9. Melody
    November 12, 2010 at 9:28 am #

    What a fun post–glad you joined the hop. Cloudsplitter is on my shelf too. I have no idea why I haven't read it yet. I love Barbara Kingsolver's writing, and enjoyed The Poisonwood Bible.

    • Dan Cafaro
      November 13, 2010 at 9:40 am #

      Melody,

      I am more likely to open Cloudsplitter than The Poisonwood Bible, but I wonder if it will just remain one of the few books of Russell Banks that just remains a disconnect. Thanks for commenting.

  10. Adam
    November 12, 2010 at 2:51 pm #

    East of Eden is by far one of my favorite books of all time – definitely my favorite of Steinbeck's works (though, Grapes of Wrath does come close). I do hope you will find yourself in the proper mindset to read it sometime – it was a beautiful experience for me.

    I enjoy Milan Kundera but, weirdly, his books are always a struggle for me.

    • Dan Cafaro
      November 13, 2010 at 9:44 am #

      Adam,

      You mention the two books/authors on my short list that I'm most likely (fingers crossed) to revisit to a satisfying fruition. East of Eden is a must-read, I am positive, and Immortality, I started this morning! Thanks for your well wishes…

  11. Erin
    November 12, 2010 at 4:06 pm #

    I love the "literary albatross" take! I have a long list of these. The Poisonwood Bible has been on that list since I first heard of it, years ago.

    • Dan Cafaro
      November 13, 2010 at 9:46 am #

      Great minds think alike… ha! I easily could have listed another 25 titles without thinking twice, but I'm a glutton for punishment served only in small doses. I look forward to checking out your blog.

  12. Kinna
    November 13, 2010 at 2:56 am #

    Publishers are most welcome. I would recommend the Kingsolver, Steinbeck and Kundera books. All are really good reads.

    • Dan Cafaro
      November 14, 2010 at 5:14 am #

      Thank you for the warm welcome, Kinna. No matter the miles that separate us from Washington, D.C., and Ghana, West Africa, the magic of literature brings us together. Cheers!

  13. Parrish
    November 13, 2010 at 4:17 am #

    Loved your post & it contained two authors I loved (Kundera & Kerouac)

    not read any kingsolver but will attempt to remedy that.

    Thanks,

    Parrish

    • Dan Cafaro
      November 14, 2010 at 5:27 am #

      Parrish,

      Thank you for your reply. Of the three, Kundera is probably the most accessible to me. Difficulty is in the mind of the beholder, isn't it?

  14. Rose City Reader
    November 13, 2010 at 9:20 am #

    Great answer! I don't even want to confront the books on my TBR shelf that I "should" read and really have been meaning to read for many, many years.

    My answer was straightforward: Finnegans Wake was the hardest book I have ever read. Hands down.

    Rose City Reader

    • Dan Cafaro
      November 14, 2010 at 6:09 am #

      Thanks for your response, RCR. The range of reactions to Joyce's works always amazes me. He seems to confound and delight more than any author this side of David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon. The fact that we're still trying to interpret his works at all tells you something about the dogged determination of the human mind. Some mysteries, perhaps, are better left alone.

  15. Zee
    November 13, 2010 at 3:38 pm #

    Ok, I'm getting a case of Dejavu. I swear I posted here. I cetainly remember reading your post! Anyways… I'm posting now, so there 🙂 BTW, I love this: "…because I own them and they, like superior schoolyard bullies, tend to prod and bait me mercilessly as I pass their resting place on my shelf…" That's what mine do too.

    While I haven't read any Kingsolver (yet) I do have a hatred of Milan Kundera. We were made to read the 'Lightness of Being' one. I just didn't see the point of it.

    Kerouac however is one of those authors I would REALLY like to understand. I'm not american, I'm european. Has that got anything to do with it? 'On The Road' totally went over my head. I was so disappointed in myself. Felt like a failure.

    Steinbeck however. Now he's King. Go Steinbeck! I love the brutal honesty that comes out in his work. If Woolf showed me the limits of literature, Steinbeck showed me the 'heart' of a writer. There are not enough words for me to describe how great he is. Excellent choices Dan.

  16. Dan Cafaro
    November 14, 2010 at 6:17 am #

    Zee,

    You shouldn't feel too bad about your reaction to Kerouac. He helped unleash many a mind that needed unleashing, but he's not exactly the most coherent of writers.

    So far, I'm enjoying Kundera's Immortality. Will let you know if I see the point…

    I completely agree with your sentiment of Steinbeck. His legacy (The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, in particular) is beyond question and his work is aging incredibly well. Travels with Charley should be required reading for every natural-born American citizen and immigrant alike.

    East of Eden is next on my list!

  17. Heather
    November 16, 2010 at 2:44 am #

    I say skip Poisonwood Bible. I love Kingoslver, but that one just sucked the life out of me. Prodigal Summer is a much better example of Kingsolver at her best, I think, and The Lacuna that came out last year is really good as well.

  18. Sharron Clemons
    December 21, 2010 at 10:16 am #

    I say skip Poisonwood Bible. I love Kingoslver, but that one just sucked the life out of me. Prodigal Summer is a much better example of Kingsolver at her best, I think, and The Lacuna that came out last year is really good as well.

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