Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Not Finishing Books Again

At this rate I may write more about books I abandon than ones I finish. (Cue Calvino reference.) Maybe it's just because I keep thinking to do something more elaborate with the ones that are done and typically just never get around to it.

Any way, the one that's easy to peg is Mary Lee Settle's Spanish Recognitions: The Roads to the Present (2004). Saw this on a remainder table and it looked like the kind of personal recollection and historical recap that suckers me in, so I checked it out of the library. In the end I only got about 60 pages (out of 350) before giving up. For a travel writer, Settle is remarkably uninterested in her travels, giving only abstract descriptions and in what I read (and a bit of skimming ahead) not mentioning any individual person, especially never naming anybody. Except, that is, for the long-gone writers and artists that she rather tediously writes about (Teresa of Avila is "a writer of pure honesty and essential truth, however obscured by the language and metaphors of her time"). Settle seems to want to write about Spanish culture with some sniffy NPR tone instead of Spain on the ground - not only could she easily have written this book (again based on just the portion I read) without visiting Spain but in fact I'm not entirely sure she did. How odd for a novelist to have so little interest in people and not only did I give this one up but now will never read anything else by her.

Tore Janson's A Natural History of Latin (2002, English translation 2004) is also the work of a sloppy thinker but I got through almost a third of this book just because of inertial interest in the subject. A big red flag came early on when he writes that Julius Caesar was "reputed" to have said "Et tu, Brute" and then commences on an analysis of that phrase. How can any classicist not know this is a complete Shakespeare invention and that Caesar's actual final words were either in Greek (Suetonius) or only silence (Plutarch)? Janson also makes odd comments like comparing Roman war in Gaul to genocide, apparently based purely on the numbers that he doesn't question. I had this aside for a couple of weeks and was deciding whether it was worth finishing when I heard about Nicolas Ostler's Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin which seems both more fun and more substantial. So bye bye Janson.