I rarely speak about the books I don’t finish, because I generally finish books even if I don’t enjoy them. I’m starting to rethink that policy though. Life’s short, no sense putting myself through something I don’t enjoy.
The other reason I don’t write reviews of such books is that I try to avoid speaking poorly of books, following the lead of fictional critic Anton Ego. It’s mean to dismiss years of work with a pithy 2 paragraph review. Maybe the book is just not for me.
But in the last year I abandoned a few that I thought I would speak about more.
Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez. I’m a massive fan of this author, so I was confident I’d like this one. It’s about a dictator in a nameless South American country. He’s petty, brutal, rapacious, vengeful, not too bright and harms his country and people in all the worst ways. But that’s not why I stopped reading. The writing style is unusual - there are no paragraphs or even sentences. The entire book is just one long sentence that meanders for hundreds of pages. Sounds tedious to read a sentence of thousands of words but it isn’t. The words flowed beautifully. So why did I stop? Because Márquez was able to make me empathise with the dictator, vile though he was. I didn’t like that. I hated him and wanted to continue hating him. So I stopped before Márquez could humanise him further.
Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. We are familiar with the concentration camps run by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945 thanks to many books, movies, documentaries and TV shows. Less well known is the system of concentration camps run by the Soviet Union between the early 1920s till 1956. At least 18 million people were sent to such camps for 10-25 years at a time, for “crimes” like being a priest or a nun, being in a relationship with a foreigner or speaking ill of the Party leadership. With numbers that large it doesn’t seem like a tragedy, more like a statistic. Until you read this book. Solzhenitsyn details every interrogation technique used by the secret police used to force bogus confessions and why. He speaks about how prisoners loaded into trains like cattle were denied water and why. He describes the transit camps and labour camps and the people he speaks to there. He explains how this isn’t something that Stalin alone came up with, but an inevitable consequence of Bolshevism. This is a monumental work, based on his time in the camps. Solzhenitsyn was awarded a Nobel Prize for literature. But it drained me emotionally to read about the violence and injustice in this book. I couldn’t continue.
Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari. I loved the previous book by Harari - Sapiens. He had a handful of insightful yet simple ideas that he explained astoundingly well. So much of human history could be explained by those ideas. I figured this would be more of the same but it wasn’t. There are good ideas in here too, but so much of it is speculative. The various chapters didn’t follow a single coherent thread that I could discern, but maybe that’s because I read it in fits and starts. There’s good material in here, but it couldn’t keep my attention.
These are great books. That I didn’t finish them says more about me than them. You may well enjoy them, which is why I thought I’d mention them to you.