I had a weird experience last week. I started and then stopped reading two books in a row. I occasionally start a book only to find I don't like it. I'll stop reading once I feel like I've given it a chance to prove itself. But never two books in a row. The first was Touched With Fire: The Land War in the South Pacific by Eric Bergerud. I started reading books about the Pacific campaigns of World War II this summer, partly because of the HBO miniseries The Pacific, and partly because it was big blind spot in my reading about that war. I read and greatly enjoyed Eagle Against the Sun, a general history of the war by Ronald Spector, and two of the memoirs that The Pacific was based on: Helmet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie and With the Old Breed by E.B. Sledge. All three were well-written, engaging accounts of the war. The memoirs were especially gripping, but even Eagle Against the Sun was an interesting, compact narrative of the war.
Not so with Touched With Fire. It was much drier and academic, and though it is about just one part of the war (the campaigns in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea), it was much less focused than Eagle Against the Sun, which covered the entire U.S. campaign. The first part of Touched With Fire was about the terrain of the South Pacific; it jumped from one island to another without much pause or organization. The book was organized into themes like terrain, a very academic approach. I have read a lot of history, and I never do well with books written like that. (I quit reading this one about 50 pages in.) I much prefer the narrative form, especially when it mixes great descriptions of events with the personal accounts of the men and women who were there.
The book I am reading now, David Halberstam's The Coldest Winter, does this very well as a history of the Korean War. Rick Atkinson's An Army at Dawn and The Day of Battle are two other good examples. I don't think it's a coincidence that both Halberstam and Atkinson started out as newspaper writers and that they write absorbing books. (Which isn't to say that there aren't academics who write good history. Spector is a history professor, as are lots of other writers whose books I have enjoyed).
The book I picked up after I put down Touched With Fire was a science-fiction novel, Anathem by Neal Stephenson. It got a lot of attention a year or so ago, and I'd picked it up on sale somewhere, all 928 pages of it. The title is a play on the words anthem and anathema. It is set in a fictional world like Earth, and every few pages at the start, there are breakouts with dictionary-like definitions of words Stephenson made up for the book. As a word nerd, the origin of the title and the definitions first struck my fancy, but I quickly got bogged down in the huge number of made-up words, along with the gobs of exposition, dense prose, and description in the first 30 pages (which is about where I stopped). And none of it was very interesting. If it had been, it would have made me want to keep reading until he got to the point.
I knew going in that Stephenson writes dense books. I read and enjoyed his Baroque Cycle, a historical-fiction trilogy that featured Isaac Newton as a character and ranged all across Europe for more than 2,000 pages. But it was interesting and engrossing from the start, and that made the difference, even during the parts when it dragged a little.
I mean, you know a science-fiction book has problems when you stop reading it and then find a history of the Korean War to be much more readable.
Here's hoping that it takes another 27 years for me to pick two bad books in a row.