Finish That Book?

Just between you and me, I have a confession to make. I leave books unread.

I know, I know. You think me a horrible human being. I didn’t used to be this way, I assure you. But over time, I have evolved a habit where I leave books abandoned, unfinished, unresolved. And I’m mostly okay with it. Mostly.

I’ve been a reader all my life. I have—for better or for worse—spent more time reading than arguably any other activity except for sleep. And given the amount of sleep I have given up reading, I’m not sure about that claim.

At the outset—well, for the first twenty-five years or so—I doggedly persisted in finishing every book I started. If I cracked the book open on page one, I was committed to getting to the end, wherever that might actually be. Not every book was awesome, of course. Some were only good. Others were merely competent. But it was rare to find a book without some redeeming qualities. I was broadly curious, and enjoyed a wide variety of books. And I was arguably insufficiently evolved in my reading tastes to wholly discriminate.

I remember exactly when my attitude on reading a book through to the end changed. It was in 1993. And the book was A.S. Byatt’s “Possession” (and it pains me even to link to it). At this point, I cannot tell you what the book was about, except dimly: there was a woman, travelling overseas, and a library is in some way involved. There was possibly research. It was one of those books that was widely praised as a literary masterpiece when it was released. Hell, it won the Booker Prize; it must have some merit. I picked it up at a bookstore somewhere along my travels, and eventually it worked its way to the top of the reading pile. I sampled its heft (it’s 528 pages long) and embarked on a journey. One that I found completely interminable.

To the best of my recollection, I got about a third of the way through the book. My wife didn’t get past about page fifty. We both abandoned it, deliberately and consciously. And so began my sordid existence as an abandoner of books.

I was reminded of this recently, in that several articles made themselves known to me (in that odd way that the universe has) about whether or not we should, in fact, keep reading books all the way through to the end. Unsurprisingly, some are in favour. Others are vehemently opposed. I took the prompt as an opportunity to reflect on my own past callous disregard of books of possible worth, and to consider whether I should mend my dismissive ways.

The arguments in favour of finishing the book can best be summed up in an article in The Atlantic a couple of years ago, one with the astonishingly pushy title of “Finish That Book!” The author starts from the place I used to, finishing every book that she started. It is a view she stubbornly persists with, and would now like to exhort everyone else to embrace. The arguments are essentially that we might miss something, we might build character from forcing ourselves to do it, and that we show respect to the author (and, by extension, to literature) by reading books all the way through.

The argument that cleaves most closely to the reasons my earlier person persisted was the fear of missing out. That the book might suddenly redeem itself in the next plot twist, which might be just a page or two away. Arguably, I persisted through a great many unenjoyable (or at least less-than-awesome) books for that reason. But fear of missing out is a horrible reason to do most things. It’s not about embracing what we want to do, it’s about doing what we feel we should do.

The other arguments on the ‘keep reading’ side also pretty firmly turn into ‘shoulds.’ Whether we should continue to read because it builds character, or we should read because it shows respect to literature, we’ve now descended into doing something because of the judgement and opinion of other people.

The first counter-argument to finishing books was made by Peter Damian on the BookRiot blog (which is its own little internet rabbit hole; don’t say I didn’t warn you). It’s a direct counter to the Atlantic article. Along with making the indignant argument that no one should tell us what to do, it makes a pretty good case that doing something we aren’t enjoying is a huge disservice to ourselves (and, arguably, those around us who love us). Continuing reading something we aren’t enjoying is the mental equivalent of being forced to eat broccoli; the experience means we’re likely never going to enjoy it.

What I love about Damian’s argument is the idea that books need to find readers at the time that readers need to find particular books. There are good times to read particular books, and sometimes that time is not now. So if we aren’t engaging with a book, perhaps it’s best to put it away and come back to it again later.

A more philosophical reflection by Tim Parks asked “Why Finish Books?” Parks is an author, so he has a vested interest in people reading his books. And he’d really like them to read them all the way through to the end. He also suggest, quite intriguingly, that perhaps we don’t have to. That books should end when we feel they should end, and where that might be is—for each of us—personal and unique. That wrestles with the idea of books as complete-and-whole experiences, but it also gives us all a plausible, guilt-free out.

There’s a lot to be said for Parks’ argument. Sometimes books don’t end. Or at least, don’t end neatly.There are books that very deliberately do not reach a conclusion, or that have many possible conclusions. And there is even a sub-genre of fiction that goes by the name of (I kid you not) ‘plotless fiction.’ Accepting that the book has simply ended for us is a whole lot less guilt-inducing than viewing the remainder of the book as incomplete. Arguably, this is simply a matter of perspective. But it’s a useful perspective.

In the department of ‘practical reasons to stop reading books’ I would also place Nancy Pearl’s Rule of 50. In essence, she recommends giving a book 50 pages before you abandon it. And as a corollary, for every year that you are over 50 years in age, you can drop a page from that. Meaning that if you make it to the ripe old age of 100, you can pretty much abandon books with impunity.

One of my favourite reflections on the subject comes from artist Austin Kleon, who published his 33 Thoughts On Reading. Rules 7, 8 and 9 are particularly relevant to the conversation. Firstly, “I will be a good date, but I will not let an author waste my time” recognizes that we have some responsibility to bring to the exercise. It’s not just the author’s role to do a good job writing; we have to commit to being a good reader. His rule “I will not finish books I don’t like” weighs in definitively on his view of the subject at hand: If you aren’t enjoying it, stop reading. Needing a little bit more thought is “I will let boredom ring like a gigantic gong.” You can read this a couple of ways: on one hand, it’s okay to be bored; on the other, that might be a resounding clue that it’s time to lose the book.

As an aside, I was also quite fond of Kleon’s acceptance, “I will throw a book across the room.” Partly because I’ve actually done this. Passion as a reader is fine.

Which actually leads me to the most important point about reading, at least for me. Reading is about passion. If you aren’t feeling it, then you aren’t feeling it. You may put the book away and come back to it later, and in doing so kindle a spark that was missing the first time around, as Damian suggests. And you may never come back to it; that’s just fine too. But persisting in something you aren’t loving is the easiest way to kill the experience. So if you define yourself as a reader, then stopping reading the things you don’t enjoy is an easy way to keep being one.

So yes, I abandon books. I have done so in the past. I will do so again in the future. And I’m really, really okay with it.

P.S. If you would like to know a very good book that I wasn’t able to put down, I would highly recommend The Magicians by Lev Grossman (and also The Magician King and The Magician’s Land). I read each as they came out. I couldn’t manage how the first one would have a sequel; I couldn’t imagine how the second one would lead to a trilogy. They did, because Grossman’s just that brilliant.

P.P.S. If you would like to know a very good book that I nonetheless threw across the room, I would refer you to Connie Willis’ Blackout. It was a gripping book that annoyed the crap out of me, mostly because (spoiler alert) of a cliffhanger ending, with a sequel not due for 14 months. All Clear has since been published. So you are all clear to continue reading without frustration.

2 Comments to “Finish That Book?”

  1. Andy Gunn says:

    Mark,

    That was interesting. I agree that some books should be abandoned if they don’t resonate with you. Some are challenging (OK) and others are annoying! On the other hand, I thought that the Magicians series started like a Harry Potter knock off. I am glad I decided to persevere as the subsequent books were more thought provoking.

    The Game of Thrones series also requires patience and I will check out the Willis series. The James Corey series and the Silo series (Hugh Howey) are also worth a look.

    Thanks for adding to my reading list.

    – Andy

  2. Jim Duggan says:

    Thank you Mark for giving me what I need to give up on books that I am just not getting into. Thankfully there are very few, but, I have always struggled with stopping once I have started.
    A notable exception is that I have actually given up on the ‘Song of Ice and Fire” series because I am not convinced that it will ever be completed!

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