To read, or not to read, that is the question.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Some feel the need to finish any book once started, that this is something “owed” to the author. Some folks also won’t walk out on a bad film just because it’s been paid for or send back a plate of pricey dog food in this week’s hot restaurant in order to “not look bad.” But if a close personal friend didn’t write the book, take you to the cinema, or cook the meal, why care?
I’m an inveterate unfinisher who encourages others to be the same. Is a book abandoned one that’s half read or one half unfinished? Often neither. Some books will always exist for me as the totality of what I’ve actually read of them – so for me The Book Thief will always be just a lugubrious novella, and The Black Swan no more than the briefest mélange of pomposity. Call me barbaric, but once I cease to be interested, a book is usually finished for me, no matter how many pages remain unread.
Was I not being fair to What Was Lost author Catherine O’Flynn by abandoning at the halfway point a book I found tiresome and contrived? I doubt she’d care. After all, she’s the one who won all the prizes and made the Booker long list, not me. Will Christopher Brookmyre’s feelings be hurt if he hears that I, an avid fan, couldn’t get past more than a chapter or two of Snowball in Hell? That would be un-Brookmyreish in the extreme.
“GIVING UP ON ANY AUTHOR BECAUSE OF A SINGLE BOOK CAN BE UNWISE.”\
I don’t hold it against people, that unfinished book, nor do I proclaim a lack of talent. All writers accept that not every reader will be charmed or satisfied. Giving up on any author because of a single book can be unwise. I’ve bought many books, started to read, then put them aside, thinking they might “work” for me some other time. Sometimes, they do: I finished reading Zoë Heller’s Everything You Know five years after starting it and losing interest. In the meantime, I’d moved on to Notes on a Scandal and liked it, so I went back and discovered I enjoyed the earlier novel. It took me three tries to get into English Passengers by Matthew Kneale, which turned out to be very readable and very entertaining.
Some days I’ll start a book only to decide I’m not in the mood for something new and I’ll return instead to old friends – Barry Unsworth’s After Hannibal, perhaps, or Tibor Fischer’s Under the Frog, or maybe E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View.
Occasionally, friends get miffed when I return a borrowed book and admit I couldn’t get through it. These might be the same people who don’t share my passion for the fiction of Tim Parks or W.G. Sebald, so it evens out in the end. There is, after all, no accounting for taste – as a friend who saw the film Mouse Hunt on my recommendation has never let me forget.
There is, however, accounting for time, and time spent reading an unappealing book can never be regained. On top of that, it’s just too much like school. I’ll die without knowing if Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, many decades after its having been force-fed, became my kind of book. Clichés often hold true, and life really is too short.
So I toast all the half-read, half-unread books that have passed through my hands, saluting both the creativity of those who wrote them and the fortitude of those who read them. And I confess to having read every last word of The Bridges of Madison County. I could have stopped after page one, but I found it, like a gruesome highway accident, horrifying yet impossible to look away from – until I got to the very last word and hurled it across the room.