I’ve never had the desire to finish a book that I don’t enjoy. If a book doesn’t grab me in the first 20 or 30 pages, I’ll put it down. No guilt. But I’ve also put down books after a hundred pages, books I enjoy, simply because I’m distracted. It’s me, not the book (and I’ve always been impressed by people who read a book cover-to-cover even when they don’t like it). Last month, I read about half of “Dog Soldiers” by Robert Stone. It is excellent and Stone is a wonderful writer but I found the story so disturbing I just didn’t want to hang around that world anymore.
Anyhow, I found this essay by the novelist Tim Parks over at the New York Review of Books, interesting:
I’m not really interested in how we deal with bad books. It seems obvious that any serious reader will have learned long ago how much time to give a book before choosing to shut it. It’s only the young, still attached to that sense of achievement inculcated by anxious parents, who hang on doggedly when there is no enjoyment. “I’m a teenager,” remarks one sad contributor to a book review website. “I read this whole book [it would be unfair to say which] from first page to last hoping it would be as good as the reviews said. It wasn’t. I enjoy reading and finish nearly all the novels I start and it was my determination never to give up that made me finish this one, but I really wish I hadn’t.” One can only encourage a reader like this to learn not to attach self esteem to the mere finishing of a book, if only because the more bad books you finish, the fewer good ones you’ll have time to start.
But what about those good books? …Do we need to finish them? Is a good book by definition one that we did finish? Or are there occasions when we might choose to leave off a book before the end, or even only half way through, and nevertheless feel that it was good, even excellent, that we were glad we read what we read, but don’t feel the need to finish it? I ask the question because this is happening to me more and more often. Is it age, wisdom, senility? I start a book. I’m enjoying it thoroughly, and then the moment comes when I just know I’ve had enough. It’s not that I’ve stopped enjoying it. I’m not bored, I don’t even think it’s too long. I just have no desire to go on enjoying it. Can I say then that I’ve read it? Can I recommend it to others and speak of it as a fine book?
…To put a novel down before the end, then, is simply to acknowledge that for me its shape, its aesthetic quality, is in the weave of the plot and, with the best novels, in the meshing of the writing style with that weave. Style and plot, overall vision and local detail, fascinate together, in a perfect tangle. Once the structure has been set up and the narrative ball is rolling, the need for an end is just an unfortunate burden, an embarrassment, a deplorable closure of so much possibility. Sometimes I have experienced the fifty pages of suspense that so many writers feel condemned to close with as a stretch of psychological torture, obliging me to think of life as a machine for manufacturing pathos and tragedy, since the only endings we half-way believe in, of course, are the unhappy ones.
I wonder if, when a bard was recounting a myth, after some early Athenian dinner party perhaps, or round some campfire on the Norwegian coast, there didn’t come a point when listeners would vote to decide which ending they wanted to hear, or simply opt for an early bed. And I remember that Alan Ayckbourn has written plays with different endings, in which the cast decides, act by act, which version they will follow.
I also wonder if, in showing a willingness not to pursue even an excellent book to the death, a reader isn’t actually doing the writer a favor, exonerating him or her, from the near impossible task of getting out of the plot gracefully. There is a tyranny about our thrall to endings. I don’t doubt I would have a lower opinion of many of the novels I haven’t finished if I had.
[Photo Credit: Book Mania!]