Booking Through Thursday: Not-So-Great Great


Here is today’s Booking Through Thursday question:

What’s the worst ‘best’ book you’ve ever read — the one everyone says is so great, but you can’t figure out why?

William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, although technically I haven’t read the whole novel. I’ve tried to read it twice now, setting it aside both times. It seems to be an American Ulysses among writers and critics: Harold Bloom canonized it. Francine Prose lists it as a book to be read immediately in her Reading Like a Writer.

Despite its difficulty, its  “obscure references  . . . [and] precipitous discourses on alchemy and Flemish painting, Mithraism and early-Christian theology,” Jonathan Franzen writes in the essay collection How to be Alone that he “loved it.”

“It was profoundly, metaphysically quiet,” he writes. “By the time I reached the last page of The Recognitions I felt readier to face the divorce, deaths, and dislocations that were waiting for me out in the sunlit world.”

I’ve read with pleasure what Franzen terms “difficult” novels — Ulysses, for instance (granted that was in a graduate class on Joyce) or even Gaddis’ A Frolic of  His Own — I feel I’m a reasonably intelligent reader, but I just don’t know why I can’t read The Recognitions.

Or maybe, after glancing at Franzen’s essay tonight, I’ve uncovered one reason why I can’t read this particular novel.

“The emotional temperature of the novel started cold,” Franzen writes, “and got colder . . . . the author’s satiric judgments and intellectual obsessions discouraged intimacy.”

Franzen expresses exactly what I couldn’t figure out: the novel is cold, too cold for me to want to push through all the obscure references, and symbolism. It doesn’t invite me to want to read it. I think that’s an essential quality a novel needs to possess — it needs to invite you into its pages, into its cosmos.

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2 thoughts on “Booking Through Thursday: Not-So-Great Great

  1. I cannot read a book that doesn’t possess emotion/passion, either in the narrative, its protagonist(s), or its overall POV. On the other hand, I know people who find this obscures their enjoyment of detail-oriented, story-above-all books.

    It may be the obscure marginalia which draws readers to Gaddis’ work – perhaps readers who have grown tired of other types of literature. I think the same goes for fans of Pynchon. Not my cup of tea.

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