Tim Parks, blogging at NYRB, writes a thought-provoking piece positing that there may be something to the idea that a reader may opt not to finish a novel when they are, in essence, quite full and satisfied — and that authors should accept and embrace this. It’s a fascinating idea considering how rarely endings of even the best novels feel satisfactory. My favorite novel, Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, ends in such a way that I bet even Stephenson thought was somewhat out of character for the book as a whole. (Though my next-favorite novel, A Tale of Two Cities, has a kick-ass, heart-wrenching, deeply-moving ending, so there you go.)
But that’s not really what I wanted to talk about here. I was more interested in how Parks introduced his topic, with the question of when it’s okay to quit a book one is in the middle of, and still consider it as having been “read.”
It seems obvious that any serious reader will have learned long ago how much time to give a book before choosing to shut it. It’s only the young, still attached to that sense of achievement inculcated by anxious parents, who hang on doggedly when there is no enjoyment. . . . One can only encourage a reader like this to learn not to attach self esteem to the mere finishing of a book, if only because the more bad books you finish, the fewer good ones you’ll have time to start.
Well, as any of the one or two long-time readers of this blog will know, this rings a bell. I am very much hung up on what I have and haven’t read, what’s important and what’s not, and what it says about me as a person considering what I’ve taken the effort to get through.
Parks doesn’t have this problem:
I start a book. I’m enjoying it thoroughly, and then the moment comes when I just know I’ve had enough. It’s not that I’ve stopped enjoying it. I’m not bored, I don’t even think it’s too long. I just have no desire to go on enjoying it. Can I say then that I’ve read it? Can I recommend it to others and speak of it as a fine book?
Now, Parks is talking about fiction here, and most of my reading is nonfiction. (I have trouble committing myself to investing in the fortunes of people who do not exist versus filling my brain with new facts, because I’m weird.) But I think the question remains relevant in both genres.
I’m thinking particularly of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, much of which I found absolutely enriching and enthralling. But there was also a point where I felt I’d had enough. I had learned an enormous amount, and then I began to feel fairly weighed down by prose later in the book that didn’t give me anything that would stay with me after I’d completed it. If I’d stopped at the point where the fatigue set in, could I have said I’d read the book, or that I’d read enough to talk about it meaningfully? I’m not sure, but I’m now open to the question.
I should say, I think some subjects of nonfiction really do lend themselves to completion on their face, like history. You’re reading it, one presumes, to find out what the hell happened during a given period.
Anyway, food for thought. Someone should write a book about it that I won’t finish.