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The Vagrant Mood

Street mural in Buenos Aires, Argentina

As Sonya Chung recently wrote for “The Millions,” every reader has several categories of “Unfinished Books.” Hers include: “Books I Did Not Finish But Very Much Want to Try Again,” “Books That I’ve Already Tried More Than Once But Couldn’t Engage With, I Don’t Know Why”and “Books Written By Friends/Acquaintances That I May Have Been Destined Not to Like in the First Place, But Gave Them a Try For Friendship’s Sake.”

I can’t resist playing these games, and as it turns out, the one category that is the very heart and soul of my own list of Unfinished Books is missing from her system of classification altogether. So in the similar spirit of honesty and leadership, let me offer up this final category of Unfinished Books (which I’ve bravely supplemented with a few personal examples):

Books I Have Not Finished (Or Read) But Have Claimed To Have Read For So Long That There is No Point Returning To Them Because I’ve Pretty Much Convinced Even Myself That I’ve Read Them By Now

Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri) – There was something of a renaissance for Indian American writers a while back, crowned by the trifecta of Arundhati Roy winning the Booker Prize for “The God of Small Things” in 1997, Jhumpa Lahiri winning the Pulitzer for “Interpreter of Maladies” in 2000 and Manil Suri being nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award for “The Death of Vishnu” in 2002.  Being Indian American myself, whenever books came up in conversation during this time – if not whenever India came up in conversation – if not whenever I had a conversation – I’d be asked what I thought about those novels, how they’d affected me, whether they accurately portrayed my own experiences, etc.  And people would be shocked and betrayed if they had read one of them, and I had not.  It was like the novel had broken some sort of promise to them.  Or I had broken some sort of promise to my heritage.  Personal copies were handed over to me on the spot so I could begin my redemption without delay.  Sometimes people would even stand over me as I read.  The guilt became too much to bear.  So until I finished them all, it was far kinder to just say that I already had.  But then I did!  Several of them!  And novels by David Davidhar, Manju Kapur, Meera Syal, and others, too!  But hypothetically, supposing I didn’t quite catch up,  that I got confused, and somehow I hypothetically let just one fall by the wayside… No, I’m not saying that would be okay! It was just a HYPOTHETICAL.

Various Unconfirmed Works (W. Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene)I’m under the mistaken impression that I’ve read nearly everything both Greene and Maugham have ever written.  And I’ve read a lot.  But they were both so damn prolific. Each had several “major works” and countless “minor works,” often with interchangeable titles.  So one could spend years believing they’d read Greene’s “The Heart of the Matter,” a well-known classic, when they’d actually read his “The Human Factor,” which is rarely ever mentioned.  Because how would you know there were even two of them?  How could you possibly keep that straight?  Do I just assume I’ve read both?  Neither?  And then the problem with Maugham is that he just has such lyrical titles; “The Trembling of a Leaf” and “The Mixture as Before” just stick with you and give you a familiarity with his books that may have nothing to do with actually having read them.  Or everything to do with it.  It may not be possible to tell.

The General in His Labyrinth (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) – Back when I took myself seriously, I used to follow a “Required-Reading-of-Three-Books-Per-Esteemed-Author-Before-Delivering-Verdict-Rule,” which I think is pretty self-explanatory.  I actually came up with this rule after reading Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera” because, while that novel itself was not my cup of tea, I felt too hasty dismissing such a renowned writer after just one shot.  I didn’t want to fruitlessly labor through entire oeuvres of authors who left me unmoved, but certain authors have the sort of reputation to merit at least a best out of three. I adhered to this rule for so long that even though it now seems sort of silly, it still lingers in the back of mind, and I occasionally find myself subconsciously keeping tally.  Ironically, I never ended up completing three of Marquez’s books; after reading “100 Years of Solitude,” I only just began “A General in his Labyrinth.” But Marquez and the advent of the Rule-of-Three are so inextricably linked in my brain that, by virtue of cognitive dissonance, I’ve assumed for years that I’ve read it.  It would never occur to me to pick it up again.

The Painted [ ] (Various Authors) –  This one is not my fault.  I accept zero responsibility here.  You’ll see what I mean:  I am 100% sure that I’ve read “The Painted Bird” (Jerzy Kosiński), “The Painted Veil” (W. Somerset Maugham) and “The Painted Word” (Tom Wolfe).  I may have read (at least it seems like something I would do) “The Painted Drum” (Louise Erdrich) and “The Painted Kiss” (Elizabeth Hickey).  I most probably haven’t read “A Painted House” (Grisham), “The Painted Messiah” (Smith), “The Painted Darkness” (Freeman), “A Painted Doom” (Ellis), or “The Painted Window” (Samoza).  It is unlikely in the extreme that I’ve read “The Painted Bed” (Hall), “Painted Lady” (Harte), “The Painted Rocks” (Alter and Shaw), “Painted Dresses” (Hickman), “The Painted Canoe” (Winkler), or “The Painted Pig” (Morrow and D’Harnoncour).  But no doubt I’ve at various points claimed to have read each and every one of them.

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2 responses

  1. sonyachung

    This is so funny.

    My partner and I have an ongoing joke about movies: “Have you seen X?” “No, but I feel I have.” Usually it’s because the hype is so everywhere, or the trailer is so ridiculous.

    My title confusion would evolve around the word “wife.” I swear, I can just see the publishing execs around the able: “We should put the word ‘wife’ in the title. It’s ok that all the characters are male hermaphrodites. ‘The Hermaphrodite’s Wife’ — that’ll SELL.”

    July 26, 2010 at 10:29 am

  2. Ujala Sehgal

    I’m psyched that you commented here Sonya! (Seeing as your piece did, in fact, inspire this post.)

    Many of the themes you brought up in your list of Unfinished Books are ones I’ve been obsessing over since I started writing – being honest with yourself about what you can do and can’t do, what you have read and haven’t read, how seriously to take yourself vs. how not seriously… Reading that these questions are sometimes still relevant to more experienced writers like yourself was comforting to say the least.

    Of equal importance, should I ever pen a novel, I now have the title: “The Painted Wife”

    July 26, 2010 at 10:57 am

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