Book Commitment Issues (Or, An Ode to Sydney Carton)

I have commitment issues. With books.

For the most part, I start what I finish, but there are certain books I just cannot get through. It’s rarely because I hate them. They might be entertaining, even easy to read, but for some reason, especially over the last few months, I’ve been having a hard time getting to the last page.

I find myself worrying an inordinate amount about this. Is my attention span too short? (Yes.) Am I coddling myself if I only read books I find personally interesting? (Maybe.) Is my inability to finish a book a character flaw? A symptom of a deeper issue? (I certainly hope not.)

I received a copy of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit for Christmas and couldn’t wait to read it. I devoured her Team of Rivals and was excited to learn about an era in American history I wasn’t familiar with – the lives and presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. The book is good! I have learned a lot. (And I’ve decided I want to be Nellie Taft when I grow up.) But it’s dense. And I just don’t find the time period or events as fascinating as the ones described in Team of Rivals. I’m beating myself up over this. All history should be interesting! Think how this knowledge will inform your understanding of other events! Character flaw!

The Bully Pulpit and I are taking a break. I know I’ll finish it eventually, but I’m pausing to revisit an old favorite: A Tale of Two Cities. I bought a cheap copy of it last week, inspired by who knows what, and I’m flying through it like I haven’t flown through a book in years.

I have some recollection of characters and plot from reading it in high school, but it’s still a breezy, lovely read. I remember telling myself after the first reading that I would name my first child after Sydney Carton (I blame my mother for this notion; she loves To Kill a Mockingbird so much that my sister’s middle name is Harper). I’ve stood by that claim over the years, but I forgot why I loved the character enough to make it in the first place. I remember his last words almost brought me to tears (spoiler alert – he loves a girl so much that he goes to the guillotine to save her family, because he is selfless and perfect!). But I read things with a more critical eye now than I did as a teenager, so I’m recognizing much more depth to the character. Lines like this – describing pre-guillotine-sacrifice Sydney’s directionless life – put a lump in my throat that wouldn’t have been there in high school:

“Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.”

Oh, Sydney. How you will redeem yourself.

I’m also appreciating Dickens as a writer, not only for how he crafts the broad plot, but also for how he sets a scene and describes characters’ mannerisms. Books come most alive for me when I can clearly imagine the action in my own head – when I can mentally move the characters around a hypothetical movie set. I can picture all these characters, where they live and work, how they move through the scenery and how they talk to each other. It is vivid. When I was reading the book in high school, I remember my dad telling me how much he loved it and how I should do my best to enjoy it. “Just bask in the presence of the master,” he said. With the added perspective of the six years since my first reading, I finally am.

Recently Read: “Watergate”

The book: Watergate, by Thomas Mallon (2012)

The reason I bought Watergate? I judged the book by its cover. Earlier this year, I was killing time in a Barnes and Noble and noticed it in a “New Paperbacks” section – the cover immediately caught my attention for its bareness, its simplicity, and for the fact that it was about Watergate, the scandal that has long held a strange fascination for me. After spending a couple months jostling amidst gum-covered quarters and cap-less pens in my purse, my copy is no longer in good shape, but just look how visually appealing this cover is:

watergate cover

Watergate is unlike any other book I’ve ever read. It is technically a historical novel, but not in the way I’d originally understood the term. It isn’t fictional events presented in the context of a true historical event; it is true events, presented as fiction. At times, I forgot I was even dealing with history. I became so engrossed in the characters and their lives as they played out in Thomas Mallon’s invented Watergate world that I forgot it wasn’t actually the world in which they happened.

My biggest complaint about Watergate is that it was too long. I’m not brimming with suggestions for what could be cut out, but for me, it dragged in parts of its 429 pages. Some sub-plots seemed designed to distract from Nixon’s inevitable resignation. I still enjoyed it, though, even if it was less for the story itself and more for the way it forced me to rethink the way I think about novels – is that meta enough for you?

I figured there was enough out there – enough imaginary characters, enough true stories that have gone untold – that an author would find it unnecessary to reinvent an already exhausted wheel. We already know how Richard Nixon’s story ends, so why bring it up again and twist things around? I’m not sure Watergate helped me answer that question, but I like that it forced me to ask it in the first place.

Despite my complaints about its length, it wasn’t just the novel’s structure that kept me engrossed. It was also how Mallon wrote. His descriptions of characters’ physical movements and inner thoughts allowed me to visualize every part of a scene.

Other assorted Watergate tidbits, from characters to themes and turns of phrase:

  • This book made me realize how much of my fascination with the scandal was tied to the journalism. Woodward, Bernstein, Bradlee & Co. were barely mentioned in this book – but they were my Watergate heroes, not Sam Ervin and Elliot Richardson! At first, I kept waiting for a juicy scene to take place in the Washington Post newsroom. Once I realized that would never happen, I learned to look at Watergate from another angle: The scandal was a product of Richard Nixon’s own ineptitude, not of Woodward and Bernstein’s heroics.
  • In Mallon’s Watergate world, the men are insecure fraidy cats who just so happen to be in power because they’re men; you get the sense it’s the women who could have really run the show, if only the pathetic men weren’t holding them back. Pat Nixon especially is very careful in her considerations and calculations during the scandal – and she never says it outright, but Mallon makes it pretty clear she’s smarter than her husband. Pat wound up being my favorite character. Her feelings seemed the most developed. She wasn’t a dynamic character in the context of this book, but she’s portrayed as being quite different from the smiling lady on Nixon’s arm she may have seemed during the 70s (I honestly don’t know much about how Pat Nixon was perceived during her tenure in the White House, but I got the feeling that Watergate made her out to be the rebel she was not in real life.) She’s smart, understands all facets of the issue, and…gasp! has a lover. (I know. It sounds soapy. But that sub-plot really works.)
  • Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, is a prominent figure in this story. I’m still not sure I totally connect the dots with Alice and the other characters (a review from Slate helped me understand Alice’s place, though, when it discussed the way this novel sheds light on those at the scandal’s periphery rather than on its major players), but her sharp tongue provided some of my favorite lines in the book. “It will be an intense pleasure to lie to the Washington Post,” she tells Nixon on the night of his resignation, offering to decry his use of a quote from her father that she suggested he use in the first place. “That’s one more thing you and I share.”

I made many more notes on phrases I particularly liked, minor themes I noticed and more, but I won’t dissect them all here. Overall, though I felt lost in the sea of characters and sub-plots at times, I’d definitely recommend the book to someone who has a degree of familiarity with the scandal and wants to look at it – and storytelling in general – through a new lens.

Related P.S.: Watergate was in the spotlight last week with CNN Films’ Our Nixon, a documentary composed of Super 8 movie footage H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin filmed during their time in the White House. Like Watergate the novel, it provides a new look into the Nixon White House and the Watergate scandal. The whole time I watched, I kept thinking of  the Newsweek blurb on Watergate’s front cover, describing how the book portrayed Nixon as “comical, pitiable, tragic.” That’s how these home movies make him look, too. The videos and their revelations about Nixon as a person and administrator are depressing and mystifying. I’m not sure if CNN plans on releasing or re-airing the program, but it’s worth a watch.