The books that send us to sleep

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clinton memoir reuters REUTERS Copies of Senator Hillary Clinton's book at a book signing in New York, June 9, 2003. Picture: Reuters

London - Despite all the hype surrounding this year’s high-brow best-seller, Capital In The 21st Century by Left-wing French economist Thomas Piketty, a survey has revealed that more than a quarter of those who picked up the 685-page tome never got past page 26, and only just over 2 percent of readers finished it.

Hillary Clinton’s memoir scored even lower, according to US Professor Jordan Ellenberg, who conducted an analysis of Kindle ebooks using a method of calculation he called The Hawking Index - named after Stephen Hawking, author of A Brief History Of Time, which has been called the most unread book of all time.

Here, we asked five writers to confess to the books they have failed to finish...

 

Amanda Craig

Novelist

old books sxc sxc.hu

The book I feel guiltiest about not finishing is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which began her phenomenal success in winning the Man Booker Prize for two novels in succession. As a big fan of her early work and her doughty yet kindly personality, I was hoping it would be her breakthrough.

To my horror, though, I found it to be a novel I had a kind of allergic reaction to.

I admit to having difficulties with serious historical fiction set beyond living memory anyway. (Like everyone, I adore the toshy sort when on holiday.)

Unless they genuinely break new ground, my view is that it’s better to read a biography or the literature of the time. At least you’d be closer to the truth - as far as we can ever know it.

Mantel’s hero is Thomas Cromwell, whose rise from blacksmith’s son to the second most powerful man in the court of Henry VIII is largely unexplained. Again and again, I kept trying to read the novel, which most of my friends were raving about, but kept foundering on its jarring use of the historic present.

The emotions were muted; the dialogue unconvincingly modern and I couldn’t care less about any of the characters.

Friends and fellow authors seemed hypnotised by Mantel’s own life-story, and accused me of being envious. Far from it - I longed to join the happy throng, but I wasn’t prepared to lie about having got beyond page 56.

I tried every technique: dipping in and out, skipping to the end, on four-hour train journeys, 12-hour aeroplane journeys.

The only thing worse was Eleanor Catton’s monumentally pretentious The Luminaries. However, The Luminaries reduces me to quivering rage rather than the baffled state of wistful somnolence brought on by Wolf Hall. It remains a sovereign cure for insomnia.

 

Jeremy Vine

Radio presenter

My father has only one vice. A non-smoking, non-drinking squash player who got an enviable degree from Cambridge University and preaches occasionally at the local church, Dad does not appear at first glance to lead a dissolute life.

But look more closely at the books on his shelves and you will notice a disturbing thing. Each of them has a bookmark in. Each has been abandoned at roughly the same point.

As a young boy, I saw my father get into terrible trouble with The History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire, the colossal work by Edward Gibbon which famously has 71 chapters and footnotes in Latin.

An ardent reader, Dad had completed all three volumes of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, and now ambitiously set about tackling Gibbon. He began when I was 11. By the time I went to university, he was on chapter three. He then surrendered.

As a result, I made myself the quiet promise that I would never give up on a book, no matter how tiresome it became. Books must be finished.

My rule held for 20 years. But then Italian show-off Umberto Eco’s The Name Of The Rose did to me what the Roman Empire did to my dad.

The book expected me to care about a murdering monk - all the while throwing gratuitous literary references at me.

Since then I have faltered with others: David Mitchell’s time-travelling romp Cloud Atlas; Tolstoy’s War And Peace (has anyone read that?); Love In The Time Of Cholera (the novel by the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Márquez; and Hitler & Stalin: Parallel Lives, by Alan Bullock (the cover frightened people on a family holiday).

 

Griff Rhys Jones

Comedian

I am stuck on Anna Karenina. I managed quite a lot of the close print and descriptions of horse-races. It wasn’t the long silly names or the trains that defeated me, it was time itself. The failure to persevere past Tolstoy’s first 400 pages was a combination of circumstances, whimsicality and bulk.

The circumstances have to do with a slight lax period about three years ago, when I had a summer gap between two of my TV projects - Tribal Art and A Great Welsh Adventure - a hot day, a hammock, time on my hands.

I decided that a big book with big themes could be my summer companion. And I reached for the great looming brick of words.

Apparently, as the introduction told me, everyone can remember when they first surrendered to the power of the hypnotic Russian romance, and the long days that it took them over and changed their attitudes. Except in my case, the book is still in the pile by my bed and, clue here, it has dust on it.

That’s a bad sign. It has been there some time, with a dog-ear on a page about half-way through.

Frankly, the thing is the size of a loaf of bread. It is not something you can stuff down your trousers in meetings. Or carry about on the Tube. That’s the trouble with it.

I have got a Kindle now. Indeed, it’s amazing the number of unfinished books you can put on your Kindle. And I have downloaded Anna Karenina in a different translation.

I remember that, at first, I loved the idea of Anna: her passion and high-necked blouses and the dashing cavalry stuff and the worthy farmer and all.

But one of the problems with reading the book at 60 years of age is that I now have too much sympathy with the supposedly dull husband and the children - and not the beautiful, heavy-breathing woman.

Mind you, writing this, I’ve resolved to finish it. In fact, I think I will go and get it from my bedside table. First though, I just have to read these six or seven books about Zambia, where I am headed next.

 

Jenni Murray

Woman’s Hour presenter

Marcel Proust’s A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu (In Search Of Lost Time) - all 3,000 pages of it - was on my reading list at university as part of my degree in French and Drama. I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to carry it home. It’s what’s known, literally and metaphorically, as a weighty tome. It’s made up of seven volumes and is loved and hated in equal measure.

I hated it. I began it in French, quickly bought an English translation, but soon found the long, tortuous sentences just as difficult to get a grip on in my mother tongue.

And then, on and on Proust went about the making of a cup of tea and the scent of the madeleine (a little French cake) as he dipped it into the tea. (‘A disgusting habit,’ my mother would have said.)

I got to around page 70 before abandoning the task and took the advice of a fellow student who’d found a Bluffer’s Guide To Proust and assured me: ‘All you need to know is he was closet gay, adored his mother, suffered from asthma and is obsessed with how smells and stuff evoke memory.’ I took him at his word and got through the exam without too much disgrace.

I was only 19 and it’s no wonder that I told myself life was too short to be bothered with a book that totally failed to inspire me.

For years after, it winked at me from the bookshelf - challenging me to have another go. Indeed, I tried it again soon after my 60th birthday, but didn’t get as far as I had first time around. Life now was definitely too short.

 

Roger Lewis

Daily Mail book critic

The shelves in Oxfam shops are clogged with books that people have given up on. They include ‘humorous’ books by Dawn French and Jeremy Clarkson, and all those paperbacks purchased at the airport before the annual fortnight on the beach, or hardbacks exchanged by relatives at Christmas and discarded by New Year’s Day.

Among them are the ghosted memoirs of so-called celebrities such as Alan Carr, Simon Pegg, Paul O’Grady and Michael McIntyre. These are the books, too, that I’ve never managed to finish.

I’ve read James Joyce. I know my way round Ezra Pound. But celebrity memoirs are anathema. I throw them away in exasperation.

The annoying thing about the autobiographies of, say, comedians Rob Brydon or Johnny Vegas, is that they come packaged as confessional and candid, but tell us nothing.

Entire marriages are often edited out. The boring descriptions of Sixties or Seventies childhoods are interchangeable. There are always lame stories about eccentric school dinner-ladies, watching Morecambe & Wise on the box, appearances in school plays, stints at provincial universities, early auditions.

Above all, money is unmentioned. I’d love to know what the sods earn and who they are really having sex with. Stephen Fry told me that in the early volumes of his memoirs, when discussing his childhood, he would change names, improve events, operate as a novelist.

But now that his life-story has reached more or less the present-day, he is inhibited. He has to be nice to fellow luvvies.

Unless a person is conveniently dead, such as the comedians Mel Smith or Rik Mayall, celebrities can’t be completely honest about other celebrities in case they sue.

Which makes publishing an autobiography absolutely pointless, and in my view they aren’t books but press releases. Against my better judgment, I start them - but never finish a single one. - Daily Mail

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