Monday, April 12, 2010

Stopping in the Middle


To finish or not to finish? It seems to me that, like finishing all the food on one’s plate, it is rude not to finish a book once it’s begun. How can you adequately judge a book by its contents if you flake out sometime in the middle? Perhaps you use the Page 69 Litmus Test advocated by people I overheard at Café Allegro’s last Friday and turn to the 69th page of the book which should apparently – in a nutshell – tell you whether to keep reading or not.

I am sorry to say that I have put aside many books begun this year. I have become a quitter. I did not finish Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, I did not finish the Story of Britain, or Agaat, and just last week I did not finish John Banville’s new book The Infinities, or Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. All of these books are good. I was attracted to them suddenly and fell away from them in degrees.

I both disapprove and approve of this new habit. On the one hand, it suggests moral laxity, intellectual ineptitude, restlessness and a disinclination towards perseverance to give up on a book. If the reader is bored, perhaps it is because the reader is boring, or doesn’t have enough concentration. On the other hand, the meaningless plodding onwards in a book one has ceased to find engaging seems like a purposeless drudgery in a world where there are so many books in print, there is bound to be another better suited to your time. Is there any point to masticating a tasteless piece of writing?

Often enough – let’s just tell it like it is – it’s because I’ve started another, much better book. I am a literary adulterer. Eventually, I feel shamed by the ball and chain the first book has become and put it back on the shelf, and ride off into the flamboyant, neon sunset of the newer book.

Here’s a solution: perhaps there ought to be a large reading authority who one could appeal to. Like The Book of Answers or even a Magic-Eight Ball. Q: Should I finish this book? A. NOT worth it...

Ideally, I suppose reading should begin with a burst of curiosity and optimism and, if needed, as I believe worthwhile things taken effort, duty can carry it through.

And so I've laid On the Road aside, but I will soldier one with Henry James' What Maisie Knew, even though I have to read every sentence twice.

1 comment:

Ian Wolcott said...

No guilt. Life is too short for boring books.

“If the reader is bored, perhaps it is because the reader is boring”

Watching Season 3 of Mad Men, by chance? There’s a scene in which Betty Draper says to her daughter, who is complaining of boredom, “Only boring people get bored.” I tried using this on my son last weekend, but it didn’t work.