Throw that book across the room! (Another thing you can’t do with an iPad).
NPR aired a discussion the other day with Julia Keller, culture critic for the Chicago Tribune, about the guilt some readers feel at being unable to finish a book. My first reaction: “Are you crazy? Life is too short to read a book you don’t like!”
Amazingly, a lot of readers think giving up on a book is a moral failure. Keller confronted the issue while struggling to finish Hilary Mantel’s historical novel, Wolf Hall — a literary smash that won not only Britain’s Man Booker Prize but also the National Book Critic’s Circle Award here in the USA.
“Why did I feel like such a heel for not loving Wolf Hall?” Keller asks in the first of two Tribune columns on the subject. “And why did the prospect of not finishing a book fill me with shame, dread and self-loathing?”
I have to admit I listened to Keller, interviewed by NPR’s Rebecca Roberts, with an amused superiority. Just put the book down! I haven’t finished a book that couldn’t hold me since I was nine or ten years old, in the first grip of bookmania, when I calculated how many books I’d be able to read in a lifetime and arrived at the puny figure of 5,000-7,000.
My friend and colleague Connie Ogle, book editor at the Miami Herald, apologizes in this recent Between the Covers blog post for being unable to finish the new novel by Yann Martel, author of the Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Life of Pi (2002). But she’s not guilty about it: “Once you reach the ‘I don’t care’ point, it’s time to move on. And so I did.”
Yet, I do know many people who feel that not finishing a book, once started, is a sign of weak character –or, at best, in Keller’s words “unsporting.” Indeed, I have a cousin who finishes every book he picks up, even those he hates. Admittedly he reads sci-fi almost exclusively, at a book-a-day clip, but still, I don’t know whether to be dismayed or impressed.
Keller, who did persevere and finish Wolf Hall, wonders why we feel this away about books:
“We turn off TV shows without a second thought. We walk out of movies on a whim. Concerts and plays? Sometimes, we don’t even wait for intermission. But abandoning a book feels different. It feels shabby and small-minded and short-sighted. Like a character flaw.”
Well, I say let’s liberate ourselves from this kind of unnecessary guilt and anguish. Really, it’s fun! Set a book down quietly, with reverence (and a shudder of revulsion), the way I did, intent on rereading Crime and Punishment, at the end of the first page.
Or throw it across the room, as I did with Ian McEwan’s vilely inauthentic novel Saturday. I did walk over and pick it up again, but only because I was getting paid to write a review. And boy was that fun, as you can see by clicking here.
To some extent, taste is the deciding factor. I relished Wolf Hall, could not wait to return to it, while I have friends who think Ian McEwan is the cat’s pajamas — even though I’ve explained his shortcomings in detail and at length. I’d go over it all again, but they’ve stopped taking my calls and unfriended me on Facebook.
In any case, I’ll never willingly read a McEwan novel, unless I’m being paid to do so. I will likely not finish Moby Dick, or Finnegan’s Wake, or The Sound and the Fury. It’s not a matter of length or density — I got through The Brother’s Karamazov, Vanity Fair, Of Human Bondage. I finished the King James Version of the Holy Bible, for pete’s said (though admittedly not in one go).
On the other hand, I’m pretty sure I won’t be reading Twilight, or Angels and Demons, or the next James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell or Christopher Paolini masterpiece.
Please join the discussion: What books have you forced yourself to finish? Or perhaps what books have you given up on? And best of all, what books have you abandoned, only to return to later and find you love? (Mine: Madame Bovary, The Great Gatsby).