Monday, October 24, 2011

Nothing to see here

Generally, I read one book at a time and I finish them. Sure, I'm not the most careful reader much of the time, and often I have to sort of knuckle down to get through the last few chapters, but usually I finish, even if I hate the book. So the worst books are not the books I hate, but the boring books; the books I can't bring myself to finish.

I first started reading Alexander McCall Smith's books while in London doing research a couple of years ago. Now, archives generally don't open to readers before 10:00am and they tend to close around 4:00 or 5:00pm; not only are weekend openings rare, some repositories are only open four days a week for researchers. Plus, archives are cold (generally) and filled with old papers, and I'm usually there in the summer when it's nice out, and hello it's London, so the idea of working for even six hours a day is really pushing it.* What I'm saying is, I tend to have a lot of downtime, which means I'm looking for things to read, and Smith is a goldmine. The guy's written a zillion books, and every used bookstore has a stack. I've stuck to the series that are set in Britain -- Isabel Dalhousie, 44 Scotland Street, and Corduroy Mansions (yes, these are all series; I'm telling you the man is prolific) -- and even when I'm not off being an extremely diligent intellectual in foreign lands, I have picked one or another up when I want something quick and entertaining.

But it seems that the shine is off for me, at least in the Isabel Dalhousie series. I started reading Comforts of a Muddy Saturday a week ago and I'm barely halfway through. It's not the lack of speed that's bothering me really; it's the lack of interest. In the last week, I've found myself forgetting the book at home or deliberately leaving it behind; even when I have it with me, I more often choose to stare at subway ads or check Facebook for the thousandth time rather than get my book out. This is unusual behavior and my brain seems to be sending a message: DO NOT WANT. So I'm giving up and moving on.

Why has this series gone from "unchallenging" to "boring" for me? I think I have to point the finger at the main character, Isabel. Here in the fifth book she's become actively uninteresting to me. Isabel's always been independently wealthy, but now she owns and edits alone the scholarly journal she used to work for (this seems epically, discreditingly weird, but then Philosophy isn't my discipline). She has an adorable baby and so many people and resources to take care of him that she barely needs to do anything. She's still involved with her niece's ex-boyfriend, but the niece seems to have forgiven it, so that's all hunky-dory. Everything's great! The only possible area of non-greatness is her insistence on not tying down her lover/baby-daddy and her neurotic anxiety over their age difference. Meanwhile, he loves her and she loves him and basically no one seems to have any problem with this relationship, so really it's all in her head. Bo-ring.

The philosophy angle of the books is obviously Smith's favorite part, and all of his books that I've read feature lots of introspective characters who think a lot about why people do what they do, and what they should do, and the why's and how's of morality. Isabel, as a professional philosopher, is no exception whatsoever of course. But, being bored by this book, I started getting annoyed at how thoroughly relativistic Isabel's thinking is. In general, you can sum up her little mental monologues as: "What a strange practice that is! Why do we do this instead of that? But then I suppose some people do that instead of this, and they prefer it. What would happen if we all did that instead of this? I suppose it all comes down to the individual situation." Bo-ring. Her one slightly controversial belief is that once she knows of an injustice she's morally obliged to get involved, but this is mostly just a hook to get some sort of plot going. Did I mention that these are technically mysteries? At the time of giving up, I am halfway into the book and we are just now learning about the mystery, and it's just too little too late for me.

Oh alas, it's not fun to find that books you liked well enough have lost their charm. I don't want to diss Smith. I respect someone who obviously loves what he does. He seems like a nice guy putting out nice books, and I really do respect that. I think it's neat how he's dabbled in a kind of revived serial publishing with 44 Scotland Street, Corduroy Mansions, etc. And I really genuinely did like the Isabel Dalhousie books at the beginning of the series. So if you like the series or any of the other series, more power to you, is what I'm saying. But I don't think I'll be pursing them anymore.

* Exaggeration for comic purposes. Please don't not hire me.

1 comment:

  1. Oh. Well, boo. But of course don't be upset about having given up on a book, for I've done it loads of times and it hurts no one.