Abandoning a book before the end wasn’t something I could always do.
For a long time, I read books I didn’t enjoy, slogging it out right until the end. I’ve since discovered that my time is finite – and there really are too many wonderful books still to be read on my bedside bookstack. So, just like I started eating watermelon pips because life was too short, I also decided it was OK to put a book down without finishing it.
I have a reverence for books and a love for authors that made me think sticking it out was offering some kind of loyalty or respect. There was also an ego element of unfinished business or a weakness of my part. As James Colley said in his article for the Guardian, “When a book is finished it becomes a trophy. When it’s left half-finished it becomes an albatross.”
I’m embarrassed to say that when reading some classics, I used to hang on just because I thought it was important to have read certain authors. I’m going to say it quietly, because I’m an Australian and it seems unpatriotic, but I think it was Patrick White who broke me. I tried The Aunts Story. I tried Voss. I just couldn’t do them. I’m happy to take recommendations if anyone has better books of his to start with, but there are too many other books that I love reading for me to sit through the penance of a ‘should’ book anymore.
I’ve also given Ulysses a go. Twice. I’m in good company. Goodreads did a survey of “the most initiated but unfinished book of all time” and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 came in at the top. People also jumped ship on Ulysses and Moby Dick.
I’ve never been a skipper or a skimmer. My sister used to flick through and read the endings of books, which still kind of shocks me. My husband is quite happy to skim through for gist. But I’m all in on my books. Otherwise, I’d wonder what I was missing at sentence and word level. It’s about more than gist and a good-ending for me. I like to roll around in the muck of it, the syntax and semantics.
I still feel some guilt when I desert a book. And I give them more pages and time than I should. My fomo (fear of missing out) and pride keep me turning pages much longer than any interest in the actual story does. I wonder if maybe I’m going to miss something amazing 10 pages from the end.
It could be the Middlemarch syndrome. I hated it for the first 400 pages and then something clicked and I was so glad I’d stayed on. It can take time to get into the rhythm of a book and just because it’s difficult, it doesn’t mean it should be ditched. But there’s also no need to turn something enjoyable into a chore. Life is definitely too short to create more chores!