On Books Left Unfinished

Like many avid readers I know, one of the tangential perks to the holiday season is the downtime to read restfully on a couch or tucked semi-uncomfortably in an airplane or bus seat. Of course, there’s never as much free time as it seems like there should be, and yet, there’s four days or so in which professional (or academic or what-have-you) obligations can be set aside for the pleasure of picking up a book only on the merits of its entertainment and pleasure-granting properties. Thanksgiving, for me at least, is all about the Fun Reading. And more often than not, Fun Reading  is mystery reading.

This year, I had about 14 hours of bus riding to do, so I took with me a crime novel called The Chalk Circle Man, which I randomly picked up while shelving books at my internship (something I do frequently, as noted in previous posts). The merits of the book seemed ample. For one, there’s the author’s excellent bio: Fred Vargas is a French (female) novelist who has had a successful career as an archeologist and historian, and is a best-selling author in her home country. Her detective, Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, is a transplant to Paris from the Pyranees who uses eccentric and unorthodox methods (which generally do not include conscious ‘thinking’ about facts) to solve bizarre crimes. The book starts well, and the motley characters–a peripatetic oceanographer who spends her off-time following strangers around Paris and taking notes on their habits; her tenants, a surly, impressively handsome, and possibly cruel blind man and an elderly woman who answers Lonely Hearts ads each day; a drunken police detective with a penchant for white wine, who is raising two sets of twins and a fifth child by himself–all felt like promising contributors to the story’s central plot.

Long story short, the book just didn’t do it for me. The plot stalled, coincidences abounded, and the characters who added so much color at the beginning of the novel began to overwhelm the whole narrative and overshadow even the murder itself. I was disappointed, but not distraught. I popped into a small, well-stocked local bookstore in Portland, Maine (Longfellow’s), and found a used copy of a P.D. James book (A Certain Justice) which I immediately fell into and spent the remainder of my vacation quite enjoying.

For me, starting a book doesn’t necessitate finishing it. I read a great deal, which means that I not only have a broad and well developed sense of literature, but also a broad and well developed sense of my own preferences therein. And the breadth and quantity of books I read seems to somehow justify my not finishing those that don’t strike my fancy. This doesn’t mean, of course, that I just stop reading a book any time that it conflicts with my set tastes, or drop those which necessitate a bit more investment and “work” on my part. But I consider myself a well-informed reader, and well, there are only so many books that I’ll be able to read in my lifetime, so I try to be choosy about which ones I invest time in. Some of these are more ‘literary’ in nature, some are just for fun. But all of them are in some way worth the investment to me.

I’ve found, however, that the ability to leave a book unfinished–for whatever the reason–is a sort of litmus test of personality. Those who feel no obligation to finish what they’ve started and those who power through, irregardless. A very talented literary scholar and friend of mine once made my day by passionately declaiming any need to finish a novel, even when examining the text in a scholarly context. As this very well-spoken, well-read friend of mine put it (and as I have quoted tirelessly throughout the years), “Whatever, dude. It’s not about narrative closure.”

Maybe that’s what it comes down to in the end? The need for narrative closure. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I’d guess that someone who is willing to force themselves through the entirety of a book that she is not enjoying, is probably pretty invested in the outcome of a plot. (And not predisposed to flipping ahead to see how things turn out, something which, again, I’m just fine with.)

But then again, maybe it’s more than that–maybe it’s also a sense of respect for the product that an author has invested so much time in, and a sense that there’s something to be gained from that product, even if it’s not totally appealing to the reader.

Obviously, there are a whole host of reasons that people read what they read and finish what they finish. But in this vein, below are a couple people’s explanations of why many of us leave books unfinished, or why you might should. Less people seem to write about the importance of always completing a book once started. Thoughts?

Alan Bissett via The Guardian:

The world of my student days, however, was fundamentally different from this one. It was only towards the end of my degree that a friend showed me a marvel named the internet (Him: “Type in anything, it’ll find you a website!” Me: “What’s a website?”) In the 90s, there were a mere four TV channels. Each household had a single phone-line, usable once at a time. Only geeks played “video games”. It was much easier to remove oneself completely from the world into the vast architecture of the novel. Now, the reader is under assault from hundreds of television channels, 3D cinema, a computer-gaming business so large it dwarfs Hollywood, iPhones, Wii, YouTube, free commuter newspapers, an engorged celebrity culture, instant access to all the music ever recorded, 24-hour sports news, and DVD box-sets of shows such as The Wire, Mad Men and Lost that replicate some of the scope and depth of literature. Unprecedented levels of consumer debt, and now a recession, have seen everyone working longer hours. A leisure time that was already precious has been chewed into by text-messaging, Facebook and emails. Almost everyone I speak to claims that they “love books but just can’t find the time to read”. Well, they probably could – they’re just choosing to spend it differently.

Kelly Jane Torrance, on economist Tyler Cohen’s question, from his book Discover Your Inner Economist, of whether “…reading a book we’re getting little out of is the best use of scarce resources.” (Via The Washington Times.)


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