Thoughts on Abandoning Umbrella

UmbrellaFor the past week or so, I’ve been dipping in and out of Umbrella by Will Self. It’s not a bad book, and although it’s not an easy read, I’ve not found it as difficult as I thought I might. It’s written in a stream-of-consciousness style that flows from one narrator to another and from one time period to another. The language is often dazzling—I’d share a sample if I hadn’t deleted it from my e-reader already. And the story of a woman named Audrey (Death, De’Ath, or Dearth) who has encephalitis lethargica and the doctor who cares for her contains potential for an excellent story.

I read about a quarter of the book, and I was sometimes delighted, sometimes bewildered,  sometimes entranced, and sometimes exasperated. And in a strange alchemy, those conflicting emotions have all boiled together to become something like apathy.

Whenever I give up on a book that’s considered challenging, I feel a need to justify myself as a reader, to show that I have readerly cred and can read and enjoy difficult books. It’s silly, I know, but there it is. The thing with this book is that after the first 20 pages or so I found that I was following most of it pretty well. When Self switched perspective, it sometimes took me a few lines to notice, and piecing together the various strands was something of a chore, but it wasn’t inscrutable. It was just monotonous. I never could pick up a head of steam. Every time I’d get caught up in the story again, it would switch gears, I’d get pulled out and have to reorient myself. And the stylistic pyrotechnics didn’t seem all that purposeful, although it’s possible that the purpose comes together at the end. It’s something to do with time exploding all over. Perhaps the way time merges together throughout the 20th century overwhelms Audrey and leads to her lethargy, much as the way the narrative of the novel brought on my apathy.

I promised myself last year that I wouldn’t persevere with books that I wasn’t actively enjoying. Enjoyment, for me, isn’t necessarily about finding a book to be pure pleasure or lacking in challenge. Indeed, sometimes the challenge itself is part of the pleasure, although I do need to feel that the effort I expend on a book will produce a commensurate level of reward. In the case of Umbrella, the rewards are not great enough to warrant more of my effort or, perhaps more significant, my time. My enjoyment only appears in bits and pieces, and bits and pieces aren’t enough when I know there are so many other books out there that will give me more consistent joys, even if they require some effort on my part. If it were half the length, I probably would have stuck with it, but with almost 300 pages of more of the same stretching out in front of me, I cannot bring myself to go on.

I read this as an e-galley, and I think this is the kind of book that’s better on paper because it’s easier to flip around and get reoriented when it switches perspective. Also, I think it’s the kind of book that is best read in long stretches. The format itself begs for that kind of reading. There are no chapter breaks and the paragraphs often span multiple pages. But at the moment, I’m short on long stretches of time, so that’s a no-go.

It is entirely possible that I’ll have more success if I decide to try again, although if I abandon a book with that intention in mind, it tends to haunt me, so I’m considering this book abandoned for good.

How much pleasure do you expect from your reading, and how much of a challenge are you willing to accept? What leads you to give up entirely? Do you have to actively dislike what you’re reading, or is it enough to not be getting much out of it?

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27 Responses to Thoughts on Abandoning Umbrella

  1. Eva says:

    Excellent post Teresa! I agree completely with this:
    Enjoyment, for me, isn’t necessarily about finding a book to be pure pleasure or lacking in challenge. Indeed, sometimes the challenge itself is part of the pleasure, although I do need to feel that the effort I expend on a book will produce a commensurate level of reward.

    I tend to love some postmodern-ish stuff (like Helen Oyeyemi and in my college days books like Godel, Escher, Bach and The House of Leaves) but it has to feel playful and/or meaningful rather than nihilistic.

    If I find myself making excuses to avoid picking up a book, I know it’s time to abandon. And I do abandon books because they don’t seem to be doing anything for me, not just because of active dislike!

    • Teresa says:

      I didn’t find this nihilistic, just boring after a while. And, yes, I knew it was time to stop when I kept putting it aside and not wanting to pick it back up.

  2. Deb says:

    I’m not opposed to a challenging read or a book that makes me stretch out of my comfort zone, but I also have no problem giving up on a book that isn’t doing anything for me. I think your experience of having so many emotions that they sort of wash each other out into apathy is right on the money. It’s like a dish that has so many ingredients, you just don’t know what the thing is supposed to taste like!

    • Teresa says:

      You’d think that all those emotions would be a sign of engagement, but it didn’t work out that way at all. I really didn’t know what I was supposed to be thinking.

  3. Totally agree about the challenge being part of the pleasure in reading; but if it’s not for you, it’s not for you.
    I am incapable of abandonment, but wish I could drop (throw?!) a book sometimes. ;-) The knowledge that one might not like something does hold me back from starting books which I perceive to lie out of my comfort zone, I suspect (but then we’re back to the challenge/pleasure friction!).

    • Teresa says:

      I think if I weren’t willing to give up on books, I’d be much less inclined to take risks. I knew going in that this was a risk because modernist writing can go either way for me. But I sometimes enjoy this kind of thing enough that I want to take risk.

  4. vanbraman says:

    This is an example of a book that I would think about a couple weeks after I read it and finally have it make sense.

  5. dicameron says:

    I feel that a reader owes a writer nothing, and if the book sooesn’t engage you then there is no reason to carry on with it if you don’t want to. It can be the wrong time to read it, and maybe if you go back to it years later you may think differently.
    I also think that if a book doesn’t engage you, it may not be the writer’s fault. It may just be a Mismatch of reader and writer, like a relationship that’s not working.
    Like you say, there are infinite books to choose from and time is short.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, exactly. I didn’t think this was a bad book. I can see why people liked it–I might even like it if circumstances were different. But as it is, the time I was spending with it was feeling like a waste.

  6. Jeane says:

    It sounds like you certainly gave it a very good effort! I’ve long since stopped forcing myself to finish reads I’m just not enjoying anymore and like Eva says, if I find myself reluctant to pick up a book again and just leave it sitting unopened for long periods, I know it’s high time to move on!

    • Teresa says:

      I spent a good bit of yesterday watching TV and looking resentfully at my e-reader, even though I’d been looking forward to having a free day to read. That seemed like a sign to me!

  7. heavenali says:

    I read all the Booker shortlist last year – and so I too tackled Umbrella. I hadn’t expected it to be a book I would enjoy and so had left it until last. Actually while it wasn’t anything like my favourite of the list, it wasn’t my least favourite. That award from me went to Narcopolis. I found Umbrella fascinating in parts, not an easy read as it’s style isn’t one I especially like. I’m glad I read it though and it was very memorable.

    • Teresa says:

      Parts of it really were fascinating. I can see why it was shortlisted. And I love when books I didn’t expect to like end up being really good, as this one was for you.

  8. Try a collection of short stories by Will Self–he’s ever so much more approachable there.

  9. Belle says:

    I have not read “Umbrella” and it is not on my TBR list, but I have just started a non-fiction book that I was looking forward to reading only to my chagrin I find myself just reading the words without much comprehension. Every now and then an idea of the author’s comes through clearly and I have an ‘ah ha!’ moment, but not often enough to keep slogging on. Sometimes it is best to let the book go with no regrets.

    • Teresa says:

      When I find myself reading the words without taking anything in, that’s usually a good sign that a book’s not working for me (unless I’m just plain tired). With this book, I more than once caught myself clicking to the next page when I was only halfway through the page I was on.

  10. Jenny says:

    >>>Whenever I give up on a book that’s considered challenging, I feel a need to justify myself as a reader, to show that I have readerly cred and can read and enjoy difficult books.

    I feel just the same! The only reason I would ever read Ulysses would be to prove to myself that I can handle it. That’s such an awful reason to read a book that I will most likely never ever read Ulysses.

    I tend to give up on books whenever I feel like reading them is work. If I notice that reading has become a slog, I have to tell myself that it’s okay to quit. I nearly always feel guilty though. :/

    • Teresa says:

      It’s terrible, isn’t it? I’m semi-interested in reading Ulysses someday, but I know if I start I’ll stubbornly persist just to prove I could do it, even if it isn’t working for me. So if I ever do start, I’ll have to make good and sure that I have the time and energy to keep up with it.

  11. gaskella says:

    One day I’m determined to read Will Self… I’ve tried and given up before, but think I probably picked the wrong place to start with him.

    I do like a challenge in my reading occasionally. It’s not often that I give up on a book (still). I do need to engage with it on some level within the first hundred pages, but the main thing that will make me give up is boredom.

  12. Jeanne says:

    I never (well, hardly ever) give up on a book entirely. I think what you say about not having a long enough stretch of time is one of the main reasons why I put them down and don’t get around to picking them back up for…well, years, sometimes.
    But the books I’ve had to work the hardest to read were the most rewarding. It took me a hundred pages to really start enjoying one of my favorite books of all time, The Gone-Away World.
    I had to read Ulysses for a class and loved it, once I came across one of those concordances that tell you which chapter goes with which story from The Odyssey. Sometimes that’s all a reader needs, something that feels like a path through the dark woods part.

    • Teresa says:

      The problem I have is that I can’t just put a book aside and then pick it back up months–or even weeks–later. If I put it down with the idea of picking it back up, it just haunts me. If I go back to it, it has to be a fresh start. And I have gone back to books years later and liked them, so that possibility is always there.

      If I ever do read Ulysses, I’ll probably look for a tool like that. I read Infinite Jest during the Infinite Summer readalong a few years ago, and there were lots of guides associated with that to help clear the path. I didn’t end up loving the book, although I liked it and am glad I read it, but the tools were invaluable for learning how to read the book.

  13. florinda3rs says:

    Maybe you’ll be up for another run at it six years from now :-).

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