- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
Everybody is doing lists of books that influenced them so deeply. Knock yourselves out, fellas. (On the other hand, Jenny Davidson’s list stunned me, because its beginning was so similar to what I would have written — my teenage years were shaped by Orwell, Shaw, Bertrand Russell, Paul Fussell, Robert Graves and Anthony Burgess, though only Orwell really has stuck in my current reading.)
Anyway, here’s a different sort of list: 11 books that haven’t made me the wonderful person I am, because I’ve never been able to finish them. These are not necessarily books I disliked. I actually would like to read through almost all of these, except probably the Brontes and that wanker Henry Adams.
- Charlotte Bronte, Wuthering Heights. Or anything else by the Bronte sisters. I think I just missed the right age for these. I shoulda been 19.
- Stendahl, The Charterhouse of Parma. I even tried it again after I read that Al Gore guy named it as his favorite novel (where do the Dems get these presidential candidates?). I brought a copy to Iraq. Brought it back home. Nowadays sits on my nightstand underneath the alarm, alongside a couple of books on littoral navigation. Never got past first coupla pages. I’d much rather spend time in France than in Russia, but I love Russian literature while the French generally leave me cold.
- Stendahl, The Red and the Black. Great title, Stennie. That’s all I can tell you about it. Kinda reminds me of an interview Bill Maher did with me about my book Fiasco, when it quickly became clear that he hadn’t read the book, the briefing notes, or anything else, and so interviewed me about the cover. After the interview I strolled outside the studio and looked at his big fat black SUV.
- De Tocqueville, Democracy in America. Another great title but about 50 pages into it I just wandered away. I’ve never understood what the big deal was about this book. I do think it would make a good title for a Graham Parker album — think of all the songs he has done about this country — not just "Blue Highways," but "Disney’s America" and "I Discovered America." If you can see him live, do. Justin Townes Earle, too. And of course Josh Ritter.
- Paul Johnson, Modern Times. Another one I hauled out to Iraq and back, unread. Over the last 10 years I’ve read the first 30 pages of this book about four times, and each time they strike me as very good. Dunno why I haven’t finished it. In some ways, it felt too rich, like too big a slice of frosted double chocolate cake.
- James Joyce, Ulysses. This is one I actually feel guilty about, as I majored in English lit. I’d read it if I knew I actually would get something out of it. I am inclined to put this in the John Coltrane/Bessie Smith category: If I don’t get it, that’s my fault. But I still don’t get it.
- Beowulf. This one too. I actually read part of a modern translation. There is some sort of monster, I know that. But I know enough monsters, you know?
- The Education of Henry Adams. God knows I have tried. I just don’t like the guy, and I don’t care what he learned. I just found this book almost as bad as Sandra Bullock’s taste in men.
- Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse. I actually can’t remember if I finished it, but no matter — I know I was bored by what I did read. I do love her name, though. And as a teenager I liked Orlando, even without knowing it was a lesbian love letter.
- Anything by Faulkner. Zero zip nada. I actually finished a few of the short stories, and didn’t particularly like them, and I’ve never finished any of his greatest hits — Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, or Absalom, Absalom. Mario Vargas Llosa once told me that he considers Faulkner a Latin American author. OK by me, all yours.
- Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. I know, this seems like a very good time to dig this one out. I bet I will read this it sometime this year — unlike anything else on this list. (After writing this, over dinner, I read the article on which it is based. Good stuff, but no shocker. Made me think most of the books on this list probably are similarly overrated.)