Unfinished Literacy: A Musing/Self-Reprimand

006This is but a small selection of the books that I’ve started but failed to finish. Three of them I’ve not yet given up on, hence the bookmarks, but the others I’ve reluctantly accepted I will never return to, and they’re doomed to sit atop the rest of the novels on my shelves, segregated from the ones I managed to finish until the day I either take a second stab and complete them or, more likely, dump a load down the local charity shop.

I know some people who won’t give up on a book, no matter what. My mother is one of those people, and, much to my bafflement, she continues reading Nicci French novels just because her work colleagues keep lending them around the office. She never really enjoys them but she says she can’t stop reading once she starts. It feels like giving up, I suppose.

I’m not above giving up on a book. In fact, it sometimes feels all to easy. I seem to have a strange attention deficit when it comes to reading, always suffering from a vague feeling that my time could be better spent on another book that will fulfill my desires much more readily.

It’s irrational really, and it’s probably an urge I should suppress. None of the books in that photo were actively bad: The Magus was difficult but I was intensely intrigued as to what was going on, though picking up a book that long is often a mistake for me; The Double hadn’t yet grabbed me but I was reading it on the train on the way to a friend’s, and accidentally left it at said friend’s where it remained until I got it back several months later; China Mieville is always a great, mind-blowing read but his novels aren’t necessarily easy-reads, and, ultimately, I wasn’t really in the right mood to continue on with it.

I probably sound like an awful creature to some people, and although I give up on a book far too easily, I certainly don’t believe that you should always finish a book, no matter what. If you’re going to finish a book just to prove to yourself that you can, all you’re doing is cutting your nose to spite your face.

Take J G Ballard’s Crash, without doubt the worst book I’ve ever attempted to read; a plotless orgy of grotesque sexual metaphors, clashing prose and meaningless eulogising on an utterly disgusting and unnecessary topic. The whole books smacks of masturbation (often explicitly is about it), art for art’s sake, a conscious effort to be as gross and ridiculous as narratively possible, no matter the cost.

I could only stomach about 50 pages. I didn’t care one single bit about what happened in the rest of the book. It was clearly going nowhere for me and I’m a lot happier having never finished it. A friend once read it too. They struggled as well, but when they eventually did finish it what they told me confirmed my suspicions: it didn’t really go anywhere and only got more difficult to stomach.

And this isn’t to say that I always give in. Will Self’s The Book of Dave, was so difficult first time that I shelved it for nearly a year before coming back to it, starting again and completing it. While by no means the best book I’ve ever read, I am happier, in this case, for having finished it. Unlike Crash, it was difficulty and not disgust that had stopped me the first time. And I’ve made it cover-to-cover through some notoriously difficult books, not least American Psycho, Catch-22, and The Master and Margarita: three of my favourite novels.

I’m almost certainly far too non-committal about books, but like all things it’s just a matter of practice. I can only keep reading and hope that I become more capable of enduring the more viscous chapters in order to finish a higher and higher proportion of the books I start. Nonetheless, I think it’s important to know when determination-to-finish crosses the line to becoming self-torture. There’s such a wealth of brilliant work and worlds out there waiting to be explored, why waste five years trying to work out the meaning to every multi-textual pun in Finnegans Wake when a consensual interpretation of the book doesn’t even exist? At the end of the day, the way in which we read books is just as subjective as our book taste, it’s for us to find the ways we best enjoy reading and perfect them as we go along.


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