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A few weeks ago a survey explained why readers never finished their books. The reasons ranged over poor craft, characters that irritated the readers, unrealistic plots or plan boredom. The most compelling reason to complete a book was story, that is, the story was riveting and had to be finished.

This market research confirms intuitions and demonstrates the personal nature of reading. With other product surveys the manufactures could amend the product to align it with user expectations. Washing powder, soup, household paint can all be made to conform, more or less to consumer needs. That aim is more difficult with books, though there are series that offer the comfort of fulfilled expectations.

One intriguing fact out of the survey was how guilt played a strong factor in finishing a book. Once started, the reader had to go on doggedly reading those pages even if every page was a form of mental torture. Admirable or slightly crazy, it’s not as if the writer or publisher will enforce a punishment or test.

One way around that trial is to know what the end will be. I know someone who reads the end of the book immediately after she has read the first five pages to be sure it’s worth reading the whole book. This nasty habit she got from an ancient relative.

Not finishing books has weighed on me recently with one author. He is like a long-lost friend, or a distant family member, who comes to visit and leaves wet towels on the bathroom floor; he has a thousand opinions on everything and he never tires of telling you about them. After ten days his presence, even within published pages, is wearing and not easy on the nerves.

I am pushing my way through Pale Fire by Nabokov and I’d like to quit as I have all the other Nabokov (except Lolita) books which I have started, been fascinated by at the start, and then closed after about thirty pages, for another few years. This time I had to know why. Pale Fire is held as one of his best and it has all the hallmarks of the Nabokov style.

It is boring but not in a dumb way, it is boring because the sentences are solidly constructed but unexciting as the book imitates, yet again, the ironic academic style. There are no musical qualities to this book, or any Nabokov book. The sentences fall hard and precisely but even his biographer has said, Nabokov had no musical interest and that is a great absence, because great writing is inherently musical.

The construction of Pale Fire is fastidious in a clever second-rate sort of way, the sort of way that a precocious young man announces in a work that is based on a chess strategy and the reader is meant to be impressed. This stuff makes academics gooey because they have to interpret it, but as creative invention, it is quite ordinary.

The last thing is that it uses the author’s preoccupations and themes, which is common, but they are presented in the same guise as many of his other works. Lepidoptera, chess, poetics, pseudo-Slavic countries and so on that a reader would deduce the author was infinitely fascinated with himself, and perhaps like that other writer of the Russian diaspora, Ayn Rand, he was.

I recall, while doing a philosophy course on the theory of the mind, the lecturer quoted Rand, saying, she could not understand why solipsism was not more popular. It is almost a Nabokov joke – with a wink too – but what unites these two is a deep and shared sense of conceited arrogance.

When I have finished this book I shall read something he would detest: The Sound and the Fury, The Brothers Karamazov, Cousine Bette, Dr Faustus, La Nausée – the choice is practically infinite.

Guy Cranswick
30th July 2013

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