Isn't it wonderful to have the simple freedom of not finishing a book? Okay, I recognize that some non-librarians have never experienced this form of freedom. It's freedom from an odd guilt that, admittedly, only applies to the diligently bookish. Then again, if you've never been a paid book reviewer, then you don't know the special hell that is I-must-finish-this-book-so-I-can-judiciously-and-fairly-trash-it. On its own merits, of course, and without resorting to comparing it to other books you wish it had been. Books make it or don't on their own terms, at least if you're reviewing books fairly, and it can be a total bear of a task to finish a bad book because you have to.
So, geek that I am, I revel in the freedom to not finish. Happily, neither of the following books I didn't finish were books I had to review, just books I was interested in reading for pleasure. And they both remain part-read. Ah, freedom.
How Pleasure Works by Paul Bloom
Chapter 1, titled The Essence of Pleasure, was great. Bloom is a Yale psychologist, and he's making a complicated argument that pleasure is neither an entirely evolutionarily prescribed experience (though most of our pleasures attach somehow to pleasures that were, at some point, evolutionary: food, sex, etc.) nor predominately a cultural experience (though our tastebuds are dramatically influenced by the flavors we grow up tasting). Instead, it's a mix of both. And he totally had me until chpt 2, when he launches a discussion of foodies by presenting a graphic story of cannibalism. A few pages later he describes the visceral qualities of disgust, which, yes indeed, I had experienced earlier in the chapter. I thought Bloom had misinterpreted Darwin's quotation, but thanks to Bloom himself contacting me, I realized that I was flat wrong. Darwin was wondering at his own fellow Victorians for their physical sensitivities to verbal descriptions of eating strange foods. Though Darwin seems surprised, it doesn't seem strange to me that the Victorians would have been more likely to have experienced "retching or actual vomiting from the mere idea of having partaken of any unusual food" (Darwin, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animal, p. 258) than people today. Bloom quotes this slightly differently ("from having ingested") but the point is the same. Still, I've seen gross-out sessions amongst 5th graders, college students, and at cocktail parties full of academics, so perhaps we're all that different today. For instance, I was gagging reading his earlier cannibalism story, and I'm not a Victorian, nor am I the most sensitive person I've ever encountered (though I am sensitive). To Victorians whose God could organize the creation of misleading fossils as a test of faith in divine order, it seems reasonable that moments when their own actions challenged that perceived divine order would result in visceral disgust.
Great first chapter! I haven't actually returned this one to the library yet, and I feel that I owe Bloom a thorough read and fairer blog review, having made mistakes in my earlier post.
Moo by Jane Smiley
This is a book that I know for a fact to be good, because people I trust have said so, but the narrative has left me stranded. There's a host of characters in this book, such that one could argue that the real character is the imagined midwestern college campus and town that the characters all occupy. Kids from farm towns going to school at the University, professors, administrators cutting deals with big money guys... maybe it's a little too familiar, too close to home (Cope, one of those trusted readers, said it might be). I found that there was only one character I liked, until she randomly slept with an administrator in the library and then lied about who she was. I know I should be reading this as comedy, like the series Mad Men, where there are no saints and the point is that it's supposed to be amusing, but somehow I'm not amused. The narrative creates compelling characters, but then the snippet-like chapters give you only the briefest glimpses into their lives, and then you're on to the next one. Cecelia, my favorite character, looks like she's about to get into a relationship with Tim, but: "...that wasn't working out either. He was turning out to be one of those men whose interest diminished as they got to know you. You got into this pattern of trying to be interesting by revealing more and more of yourself, like a salesman unpacking his sample bag, but the man, though he looked like he was smiling and paying attention, was really shaking his head internally--not that, not that either, no I don't think so, not today. The temptation was to unpack everything, not exactly for that particular guy, but just to rise to the challenge, just to get the nod." (p. 117) See, Smiley is really good. Just quoting that passage makes me want to give the book another whirl.
Maybe I will. If the point of freedom is choosing what you will, then I might just choose to change my mind again.