Carrying on with the Book

from A Shropshire Lad, A.E.Housman

II. Loveliest of Trees

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my three score years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Last week I read this poem with a group of men and women who were all well past their three score years and ten. They felt rather smug and were delighted when one of them suggested they were all existing in injury time. That night as I got into bed and opened the long novel I have been struggling with for some time, I was struck by the thought that if I stuck to the Shropshire Lad’s strict rule (with no injury time), ten years was going to be very little room to read everything on my must read list as well as some of the new stuff to be published between now and the final whistle. If time is running out, should I just abandon this book and move onto the next or should I persevere? It is a good book by a respected author but I just can’t seem to make a real connection.

And then by coincidence, a couple of days later, I read this from Nick Hornby in The Observer Magazine:

Every time people force themselves to carry on with a book they are not enjoying, they reinforce the idea that reading is a duty.

Now I don’t believe in duty reading but nor do I think that all reading should be easy reading or reading within your comfort zone. Often you have to struggle to reap the best reward. George Eliot’s Romola, for example, is almost impenetrable for the first 100 pages but then it takes off. If I had given up and thrown it aside at page 98, I would have been the poorer for having missed out on something hugely worth reading.

As far as I am concerned, I think the habit of a lifetime (I have started so I’ll finish) is going to be too hard to shake off and anyway, I am not sure I want to have a pile of half read books lying around, mostly because of the nagging suspicion that if I had just pressed on, I might have come to my Eureka moment on the very next page.

Perhaps there is just not enough context in Nick Hornby’s argument, for how can there be a general rule to abandon every book we are not enjoying. I am not arguing back that we should press on stoically with something of no value. Surely, each book has to be considered and decided upon individually.

Meanwhile, back in bed, I have read 261 pages and there are 257 to go and the clock is ticking…

6 thoughts on “Carrying on with the Book”

  1. Great post Angie, but we want to know: what’s the big book?

    Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve been reading Nicholas Nickleby for over twenty years. It was a course book in my second undergraduate year and I’m about two thirds of the way through it now. It’s odd, because I’ve read and enjoyed loads of Dickens and would be happy to reread most of it. I have no idea why this one bores me, and every now and then I give it another chance, but it does.

  2. Ah no. I cannot name the book, because that would be to change my question from ‘should you give up books you are not enjoying’, to whether a particular book is worth reading or not. I was simply interested to know whether other people are perfectly willing not to finish books or if stopping makes them feel guilty .

  3. Loved this, Angie, but then I always enjoy your clearly recognisable contributions to this great ‘blog’ – big ‘shout out’ for Chris! I never force myself to complete anything I’m not enjoying (no, I’m not going into detail, you’ll be relieved to hear) so why make books an exception? I sometimes ‘cheat and skim’ then watch the movie, if there is one, though, and sometimes it’s better than the book! Speaking of which, have you seen the RSC’s brilliant version of ‘Nick, Nick’, Chris? I recommend it, if not, as a way in to CD’s fragmented roller-coaster.
    Personally, I have never managed Lord of the Rings which my brother loves (he tells me, with monotonous regularity, every time I admit defeat, that I stop ‘just when it begins to get going’). Sometimes I think it’s just the mood you’re in and once you’ve stopped you create a need for a reason to start again which doesn’t always come. If that happens, you need something more than ‘duty’ to compel you to carry on, I think … as you imply, Angie, ‘life’s too short’!
    Incidentally, my favourite poem, ‘The First of May’, is by Housman, for somewhat idiosyncratic reasons: I think most of us remember being ‘dressed to the nines and drinking’ and it’s smashing to think that this image of perpetual youth is perennially available … I know, I’ve segued, what were we talking about again? Oh, yes, old age … !

  4. Thank you Noggin. And thanks for the nudge to look up The First of May. Housman is undoubtedly the frequent voice in the ear, measuring the passing of time with the backwards view from knowledge to innocence: ‘those blue remembered hills’, ‘when I was one-and-twenty’ and much more.
    As you mention films… I am further reminded of Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen in Out of Africa quoting not once but twice from Housman: ‘To An Athlete Dying Young’ at Robert Redford’s funeral – I forget his characters name and also a line from

    With rue my heart is laden
    For golden friends I had,
    For many a rose-lipt maiden
    And many a lightfoot lad.

    By brooks too broad for leaping
    The lightfoot boys are laid;
    The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
    In fields where roses fade.

  5. You’re very welcome, Angie. I think that the utterly drop-dead gorgeous Mr. Redford was called Hatton in Out of Africa but frankly, when he’s on screen, I don’t pay much attention to what’s being said, so I could be wrong (my family would advise you to frame that last admission of fallibility, even as a possibilty)!

    I agree with you about the softly wistful, intimate distancing of Housman: he calls you close then reveals more than might be intended, I think, making you feel you eavesdrop on his pain.

    Also, a wondrous sublimal generic in all his poetry, I infer, is that tentative overlap between the ‘real’ and ‘imagined’, underpinned by a poignant guilt; as if he should know better than to feel as he does but is almost glad that he doesn’t.

    A great shame he isn’t praised as often as he is requested.

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