Notes From the Book Review Archives

This week’s cover considers the historical influence of books and literature. But with so many books, there’s never enough time. In 1984, the Book Review asked a handful of writers, including Jean Strouse and Eudora Welty, about some of the “great books” they never finished. Read an excerpt below.

Jean Strouse, author of “Alice James: A Biography.” The book I’ve often hauled along to beaches and mountains and have never managed to make much headway in is James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake.” I can’t even say something clever about it now because I haven’t ever got past page 20. I do remember the first time I heard its name. I was 15. My family lived in West Los Angeles, and I spent a lot of time that year browsing in local bookstores with a friend who seemed very sophisticated. In those bookstores I was drawn as if by pheromone to New Directions paperbacks — they had about them irresistible intimations of New York coffeehouses, French cigarettes, bare mattresses on cold floors and major depression. One day my learned friend pulled a volume called “Finnegans Wake” off the shelf and asked if I’d read it. I tried to look knowing as I shook my head and temporized — “Not yet” — wondering why he of all people would be interested in a fat book about sailing.

Eudora Welty, author of “One Writer’s Beginnings.” It doesn’t enter my mind not to finish reading a book I’ve once started, whether it’s a classic or any other kind. I persist and might do so out of habit alone, but the act of reading is itself vital to me and carries me along — it sparks its own hope and curiosity. Certainly disappointment comes along in the course of reading many a book, but this isn’t fatal — if I may limit this to the reading of fiction. And then I should add that contemporary fiction keeps its hold on me till the end because of my sympathy as a writer for another writer’s welfare. I once literally threw away a new novel I’d brought along to read on a voyage to Europe, but not without finishing it first. Had I chucked that novel into the Atlantic without having read the whole of it through, I could have thought, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

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