I am the kind of person that can happily never finish a book and not lose sleep over it. I am, as an article in The Atlantic suggests, a Half-Reader.
But I am also a slow reader. For example, when I borrowed Fool on the Hill (by Matt Ruff) from a friend back in high school, it took me over a year and a half to finish it. Eventually she got so impatient with me that I felt bad being under such pressure, since I just wanted to saviour the story, to drag it out for as long as I could. But I also very much wanted to finish it nonetheless. It was a complex story, a whimsical story, a great story. Something I’ve not been able to find since.
Then there a books I really never finish, mostly because I get bored with them half way through. There are only a handful of novels that were so bad that I wanted to throw the books against a wall or in a corner. Literally.
Two of those aerodynamic books I had to force-read, in order to actually finish them without just skipping to the end, were: The Hard Way by Lee Child and The Wind Through the Keyhole – A Dark Tower Novel by Stephen King. I wanted to like them both and I just couldn’t. The first sounded like an interesting read because of Jack Reacher, but turned out to be just another predictable story (especially the ending, oh dear me!). And the latter was just terribly written despite being a bestseller (it makes you wonder). Probably other books by Stephen King are much better, since most of his character driven stories are quite good – this one wasn’t though. It reminded me of German author Wolfgang Hohlbein who (the why is beyond me) won the bid to write licensed Indiana Jones novels in the 1990s. I love all three Indiana Jones movies dearly (there is no fourth one. Three. Like in Star Wars. Three, ‘k?) and after enjoying and finishing Rob MacGregor’s novels – the ones with that awesome cover art in sync with the movies – I was foolishly happy with any related material. But the books by Hohlbein were dreadful, the writing far from a 1940s adventure skit. The humour was not really there at all (Germans, ey?) and the action was described in a way that you had time to boil the kettle and make yourself and another person a nice cup of tea before Indiana Jones, suffocating under water or being in an equally uncomfortable pickle, would regain control over an otherwise deadly situation. Oh my! He’d survive for yet another adventure? What a surprise! Hohlbein is a fantasy author and he has a following in Germany, but he just did not construe poor old Indy at all.
I think I am, on a subconscious level, on a quest to find another book that captures my imagination like Fool on the Hill once did. I even turned to the author’s follow-up novels and have yet to make it through the first chapters. I tried several times, but there was nothing in them that kept me wanting to keep reading. Somehow the author put all his best ideas into his first novel – a one hit wonder, but still my favourite.
Maybe I am asking for too much. But am I really? I can read terrible books that are based on a good idea and interesting characters, even though the story was just not as well thought out or written. I am looking at you, The Wolfman by Nicholas Pekearo. I also tried A Games of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. Not because I wanted to be one of the cool kids (if I did, I would have read Lord of the Rings in high school, no thank you), but because I wanted to compare it to the TV show and see what they did with it. But the constant switching between character perspectives just confused me to no end. Every time I picked it up again, I had forgotten were I left it last time. There are only 9 perspectives in the first book that switch every chapter. I don’t want to imagine what the 31 perspectives by book five would have done to my sanity. So I did the only sane thing and sold the 4 book set on – unfinished and in near mint condition.
Another book I quickly sold on was also on a bestseller list, but so boring I forgot its name and author. I hoped for an easy summer read to pass the time (in my defence it had palm leaves on the cover), but when the author introduced 30 characters on the first 15 pages that were only remotely related to the story (some relatives of friends of the main characters or whatever) I got lost in so much back story of people I hadn’t met yet, that I knew it was time for me and the book to part ways.
Amongst the pile of unfinished reads, high atop sits Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. The story intrigued me, so I just had to get it. Even that it was written from the first person perspective couldn’t put me off this time. I wanted to read it.
Seriously though. What is it with the first person perspective these days? I cannot offer a professional or scientific explanation, but is it supposed to make you feel closer to the story, like you ARE that character? When they tell you what they feel, does the reader feel it too? These days every book I interestedly pick up at the book store to peek inside I quickly drop like a hot potato when it features this novelistically most abused abomination that is the first person narrative. “There I was, in a book store and it hit me like -“. You are the weakest link. Goodbye.
Don’t get me wrong. There are great novels out there that are told from the first person perspective: Any Philip Marlowe novel by Raymond Chandler, any Travis McGee novel by John D. MacDonald and any of the Dexter novels by Jeff Lindsay. Great characters and great use of the dreaded perspective can make it work. Especially Lindsay has it figured out and you forget that what you are reading is in fact a first person narrative. It’s not in your face all of the time. Hell, even in Ready Player One the perspective was used nicely, not dripping with cheesy feelings and describing things and situations quite naturally without overusing the “I”. But the book itself, the story is… how shall I put it… childish. The idea must have been conceived and written with an adult reader audience in mind, since it’s flooded with all that cool nerdy (mostly) 1980s pop culture reference. But the way it is written, from the perspective of a teenager, makes it not really material for me as an adult. And I am not saying I don’t like children as main characters. Stand By Me, The Goonies and Strangers Things: all great stories about relatable underage heroes. But in book form it doesn’t work as well for me.
Also, I have always enjoyed cross references that few people get, these little in-jokes only you and a close friend gets. In fact in high school my best friend and I did exactly that: We mixed our crazy fantastic stories with all sorts of cool hints and references for each other to discover, some obvious, some more subtle – think of a TV show like Chuck or Warehouse 13. But in Ready Player One it feels like the story is just a clumsy collection of references obviously strung along to create a chain that resembles an actual creative story. Like cue cards that you can use if you are out of ideas. It’s like the book only exists to create a backdrop for all the references.
That is why I haven’t managed to finish the book. I simply do not care who wins the priced egg. It may be the hero, it may not. I don’t care, and I don’t need to know. So I stopped at chapter “0034” which starts with the line “I was ready to rock”. Well, I am not. I find myself wondering sometimes, what I may have missed, how the dude “rocked” the finale. But then I remind myself how little I actually care about the characters in that book, how little I have in common with any of them and how unlikable they are in a meh sort of way.
However, I do like the Random House US paperback cover design, it somehow reminds me of Blade Runner aka Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, which is indeed on my list of novels I liked and finished. Yes, they do exist.