Six Degrees of Separation: From Eats, Shoots and Leaves to six other books for which life is too short

Is it July so soon?

I knew instantly what direction my Six Degrees chain would take this month when I saw that Eats, Shoots & Leaves was the starting book chosen by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best.

I haven’t read Lynne Truss’s best seller because too many people told me that I should read it and that I would love it, without any attempt to explain why that should be. I can be a contrary miss at times. I think the presumption on the part of others might be that, because I can spell and have a decent grasp of grammar and syntax, I would enjoy a book that, for lolz, expresses frustration with those who don’t understand punctuation. Maybe I would love it, but the vibe I got when it came out was ‘over hyped by the literatti’ and a little bit smug.

Similarly, many people thought it their duty to inform me that Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk would be right up my strasse, perhaps because at the time it came out I was in the midst of the seemingly endless grief of losing a loved one by increments to dementia. I read some reviews, didn’t find any compelling evidence and moved on. My loss, perhaps, but it’s a risk I’ll take.

Around the same time, I was looking around for a new-to-me author to try out. Some book lists suggested that Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle might be worth a look. Now there’s a tediously provocative title. It’s a six volume set of autobiographical novels about a privileged white man raking over “the banalities and humiliations” of his life. After a small period of reflection, I decided to pass and expanded my reading in a different direction.

Speaking of privileged white men who write autobiographical novels: Ian McEwan. I mean, I know we’re not supposed to think his books are autobiographical, but I’ve read two with male protagonists who share certain qualities, so I have my suspicions. The McEwan book that people used to tell me I should read is On Chesil Beach. Even though it’s a novella of only 166 pages, life is too short for more Ian.

Another, far weightier tome that life is too short for is Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Lauded as “a profound study of the postmodern condition”, it runs to 1,079 pages, has 388 endnotes, some of which also have footnotes, and a blogger I know admitted to having to develop her own referencing system to work through it. A friend once challenged me to read it. His words were, “I want you to read it so I don’t have to.” I toyed with the idea, but realised there was a clue in his challenge. He’s going to have to read it himself.

I recently saw a Tweet from the account of one of my favourite independent publishing houses that simply read “Theory: Sapiens is the new DFW”. Yes, I thought, yes. Only one person so far has suggested that I read Yuval Noah Harari’s brief history of humankind, while in the same breath admitting that it was slow reading. It might be deeply profound, but no.

Finally, to another brief history, this one relating to time. My brother-in-law lent me his copy of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. He hadn’t managed to finish it, and neither did I. I don’t think I even finished the first chapter. On the face of it, I was interested, but the reality of the book was too dry.

So there we have it – a sequence of books that there’s not enough time in the world for me to commit to, no matter what other people might say about them. For the record, I will not be taking questions, nor am I inviting attempts to persuade me that I’m wrong about these books*.

Are there celebrated books that you feel you should read but know that you won’t? What would you put in a chain? Head over to Kate’s blog to find out what other readers have chosen.

*My tongue is in my cheek.

13 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation: From Eats, Shoots and Leaves to six other books for which life is too short

      1. Another reason for the punctuation sticklers to stand down, I say. You never can tell these days whether faulty punctuation is the result of lack of knowledge of its subtleties or lack of attention paid to what our pocket computers are deciding to say on our behalf. When I tweeted a link to this post this morning, an editing glitch decided to replace the word Degrees with a gap, so that it read “Six of Separation”. This is impossible to type by hand, since a double space introduces a full stop. I almost added an explanation beneath the tweet, but decided to throw caution to the wind and not care.

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    1. If it was allowed to happen, she wouldn’t be lauded as “one of the 21st century’s greatest literary sensations”, but would be held up as an example of how female writers don’t produce serious work.

      I feel sorry for his relatives. I was reading this morning about Anne Theroux and the book she’s written, fuelled by how her ex-husband Paul’s appropriation of their marriage and divorce for his fiction made her feel. It’s an interesting read https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/jul/04/anne-theroux-my-ex-husband-paul-wrote-about-our-divorce-now-i-want-my-say, partly because their sons Marcel and Louis also give a view on their mum writing a memoir.

      The interviewer contacted them to ask how they felt about the book, but there’s an undercurrent about the question, one of expectation that Anne would have asked their permission, somehow. I doubt very much whether they’ve been asked much about how their dad’s writing makes them feel. I doubt, too, that Paul paused for even a second to think about permission.

      Male writers just write, no questions asked. When female writers just write, they’re quizzed on it. Or so it seems to me.

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  1. Another reason for not reading H is for Hawk is that it made me dislike T.H. White which seems a pity!

    When I worked in publishing, nearly everything was measured by sell-through but we used to joke there were several books which had outstanding sell-through but extremely low read-through. A Brief History of Time was one of them and others included The Name of the Rose and The Satanic Verses.

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    1. WordPress didn’t tell me about your comment, Constance! T H White as in The Sword and the Stone? I’m almost intrigued enough to read it to find out why. But not quite.

      I’m not surprised about A Brief History of Time and The Satanic Verses having bigger sell-through than read-through, but having read and loved The Name of the Rose, and having read and mostly loved enough of Eco’s other books to know The Name of the Rose is his most accessible, I am surprised about that one!

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  2. I will not be attempting to talk you round, Jan, although you have a favourite of mine in that list and 3 others that lurk either on my shelves or on a tbr somewhere. We all need to read whatever it is that we need at the time we are reading. But I must congratulate you on a very clever and original chain!

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