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Reading Buddies Discussion: “Let the Great World Spin” by Colum McCann

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I have to start by asking, just because I’m curious: is anyone still reading Let the Great World Spin? I can’t believe how many people have told me they tried and couldn’t get into it, either for Reading Buddies or on their own. (There is a Goodreads thread going for Let the Great World Spin, but it hasn’t seen much action!) Since I know people who didn’t finish may be interested in how the book is going, I’ve decided to keep this post free of major spoilers. I won’t go beyond basic structure, extremely rough summary, and vague connections, so if you’re curious, read on.

I’m listening to Let the Great World Spin, and that format seems to be working for me. It’s read by a full cast, one narrator per section of the book. I loved the opening scene, how so many anonymous people in a usually impersonal city were briefly united as one in their fascination with the man on the tightrope. I’m not sure what I expected to happen next, but it wasn’t what did!

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (cover)From that opening scene, the novel moves on to spend some time with individual people. I will admit the first story, about an Irishman and his brother, was very slow for me, and had I not committed for Reading Buddies, I may have given up. (If you quit, did you make it past this first story?) The very end, though, caught my attention, and I was interested to continue.

The next story is about a mother whose son died in war. I found her story much more absorbing than the Irishman’s. However, I was confused as to the novel’s structure. It’s referred to as a novel, not a collection of stories, so I expected there to be some thread connecting all the stories together, yet up to that point there seemed to have been none. The third story, a young artist’s, tied the third and first narratives together in a way I didn’t expect but that was rather touching. I’m still working out how those two fit with the mother’s, though. Perhaps they don’t beyond possibly sharing a timeline. At the end of the first part, where I stopped for this discussion, the story returned to the tightrope walker, showing a glimpse of his walk preparations.

I am mildly intrigued to keep reading, and I’ll definitely finish the book, but I can see why many have set it aside. I’m hoping it’s the sort of novel that makes sense in the end, that comes together in some lovely way. For anyone interested in trying again, I would recommend the audio, which might be one of the reasons I haven’t yet gotten too bored!

If you’re reading (or have read) Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, what do (did) you think? If you abandoned it, how far did you get and what made you ultimately set it aside? I’m very curious to hear!

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  • http://www.thebooknerdclub.blogspot.com mummazappa

    I read this a few weeks ago and thought it was brilliant. I guess I did find it a little cold, but Colum McCann has an amazing talent for playing with words. There is a section narrated by Tillie which was my favourite.

    • Erin

      Tillie’s section was very good. The narrator who did it for the audio production, which I listened to, had a weird way of pausing (I think to reflect all the breaks in the written version) that made it a little hard to listen to. It was very well written, though. I definitely liked the book more the farther in I got.

  • http://www.ragingbibliomania.net/ zibilee

    I had wanted to read this, but ended up not having the time. I also have read that others were a little disappointed with it, and some had put it down very early on. I think that the first section sounds a little slow, but hopefully I can get past that part and be able to enjoy this one when I read it. I will be following these posts eagerly to see what you think!

    • Erin

      It happens! It’s definitely a good book once you get past that first section, which is very slow but ends up providing a lot of the background on which the rest of the book is built. It worked well on audio, since I could do other things while listening, so I didn’t get too bored with the first story.

  • http://homeofaimala.blogspot.com/ Amy

    I haven’t started reading it yet but I’m hoping too and am still going to try to finish it by the end of th emonth. I have read and heard so many great things about this book. I wasn’t aware that several people were having difficulty finishing it or getting into reading it.
    I’m wondering if the format which sounds like a series of short stories is causing problems for people?

    Your post has me even more interested!
    The individual stories captivate me and I’m interested to discover the connection. Thanks, Erin!

    • Erin

      I think it’s that first story that gets most people. I thought the book got steadily more interesting, as more and more layers of stories and characters were added and linked together. I think that ties in with the format, since you may not like a certain character, may find a story boring, or may have trouble getting attached to any one character when they keep shifting. I think it worked in the end, though!

  • http://jennysbooks.wordpress.com Jenny

    I would have set this book aside if I hadn’t been reading it for book club. But reading it for book club made me think more than I would have about the themes — the way the characters lose the things that define them. Like the mothers who no longer have sons, and of course the city that no longer has its towers. So although I didn’t love the book, there were things about it that I thought were very well done.

    • Erin

      It seems lots of people share that feeling, including myself. I loved hearing some of the themes your book group discussed, so thank you for sharing them! By the end, I would have to agree with you that, though I didn’t love the book, I did think it worked and had many good points.

  • http://joyfullyretired.com Margot

    I’m so glad you admitted to having difficulty with this book. I was beginning to wonder what is wrong with me. I’m almost to the end of the first story of the brothers. When it got to NY/Bronx it seemed so depressing that I wanted to give up. I’ll stay with it a bit longer – maybe through the next story. But it’s going to have to improve to keep me going.

    • Erin

      I hope you kept with it, Margot! It grew steadily on me as I read, and I think that the overall effect, looking back after having finished, is more than the sum of the novel’s parts. I do think it’s worth reading, though perhaps I can say that because I listened to it instead of making myself sit still with a book I was struggling to read!

  • http://booksnyc.blogspot.com Colleen

    I haven’t started this yet but do still intend to read it this month – I am just running a little behind!

    • Erin

      No worries! :-)

  • Lisa

    I read this book awhile ago. I had a hard time with it. I am pretty sure I finished it-but I may have skimmed some of it. I can imagine the audio book format might be a good choice for this book.

    • Erin

      The audio did work well, at least for me. Though being able to skim might have made the slower parts easier to get through!

  • Anita

    I started and abandoned this book sometime last year. I almost never give up on a book once I’ve begun, so it was a big deal for me. Like you, I really liked the opening scene, but I just couldn’t get into the first story about the Irishman and his brother — it just felt interminable and uninteresting to me. I think maybe if I had known that the whole book wasn’t going to be more of the same, that the next chapter was actually a whole different story, I may have kept going.
    Anyway, it’s really interesting to hear your take on it, Erin. Thanks for the post!

    • Erin

      Yes, I was relieved when a new narrator and story kicked in! It’s too bad that first story is so long and kind of dull, as it seems to put many people off the book. Looking back, seeing how all the pieces fit, I can see how the book is more than the sum of its parts, and I think it grows on me with time, so that I like it more now than I did when I was reading.

  • http://anothercookiecrumbles.co.uk/ anothercookiecrumbles

    Just finished reading it a couple of weeks back, for the Reading Buddies project. I finished it, and enjoyed it. For me, it started off slowly, but quickly picked up pace, and I was eagerly turning the page to find out what happened next.

    There is also something special about reading a book set in a year when the towers had just finished completion, and was considered to be a travesty, but even back then, the walk in the sky was pivotal to that day in the life of many New Yorkers.

    I also love reading books set in New York – past or present, so…

    • Erin

      I’m glad you ended up liking the book. I agree that it definitely picked up as it went along. I liked how more and more of the stories started to fit together so that by the end everyone had a place in the greater whole.

  • http://Www.lifewithbooks.com Jenners

    Hi! Sorry I’m late to the discussion but I was on vacation. I DID manage to finish the book but I did find it confusing for quite sometime until the stories started to come together. It does take quite a bit of time until they start to do so … and, like you, I’m not sure I would have continued on if I didn’t have an “obligation” to read it. In the end, I liked it but I didn’t love it. I’ve read other books that have a similar structure that I liked better but it worked in the end. I just think he could have moved it along a bit more in the beginning though … that Irishman section went on so long that it was jarring. And I’m not sure we needed the tightrope walker to “tie” it all together. So, in the end, I read it and finished but didn’t fall in love.

    By the way, I’m just back from vacation and catching up on your blog but I’m only leaving one comment per blog so I don’t spent FOREVER getting caught up. It gets a bit out of control when you don’t read blogs for a week!! ; )

    • Erin

      No worries, I’m even later about replying (sorry!!). I liked it by the end, too, and I’m actually finding it’s growing on me the longer I think about it. It seems the overall novel is more than the sum of its parts, somehow. It was really my first experience with such a fragmented story, so I don’t have much to compare it to, but I do agree the first story needed to be…different somehow. And I liked the tightrope walker in that first scene, though I didn’t care so much for his later appearance.

      Regarding catching up: with finals and traveling, I am so behind it’s not even funny, so I completely understand! It’s to the point that I might have to do a mark-all-as-read and start fresh. I promise I’m still around!