Do you finish books? Samuel Johnson didn’t. In a fascinating essay at the New York Review of Books blog, Tim Parks writes about readers and writers who don’t feel the need to finish books.
Samuel Johnson said of the compulsion to finish books:
This is surely a strange advice; you may as well resolve that whatever men you happen to get acquainted with, you are to keep them for life. A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?”
And I rather agree with him.
Do I finish books? Yes, I prefer to. Sometimes it takes a day, sometimes a week, sometimes a year. If a book proves dull or poorly-written, I often put it aside and turn to the classics. You can’t read Anna Karenina and Bleak House too many times.
But I am an eclectic reader. I read Nadine Gordimer and Elizabeth Goudge, P. G. Wodehouse and Rebecca West, T. C. Boyle and Marion Zimmer Bradley.
And I read oddball out-of-print books that I discover through old magazines and other venues. Take Nancy Hale. It took me 10 months to finish her 700-page novel Prodigal Women. It’s not that I didn’t love this book, but after reading three-fourths I was overwhelmed by tragedy. Hale, a novelist, memoirist, and the first woman reporter on The New York Times, wrote this best-seller in 1940. It is a fascinating, if overwrought, story of three women who meet in girlhood in New England, Leda March, a moody intellectual, and her neighbors from the South, Betsy Jekyll and her beautiful older sister Maizie. These characters grow up to work, marry, and cower under sadistic husbands or cheating lovers, and Maizie ends up in a mental hospital. It takes a long time for these characters to come out on top, and it only happens when they stop depending on men, whether they stay in their relationships or not.
Doesn’t that sound like life?
I needed a women’s support group to keep going. Now I want to read this rocky, uneven novel again. Isn’t that odd?
(I whole-heartedly recommend Nancy Hale’s classic memoir, A New England Girlhood.)
Do you like pop fiction? The Lord knows, I do. I doubt any of my pop bedtime blockbusters would have fallen into Johnson’s hands.
My bedtime reading is usually pop. I have spent two years perusing the first two 1,000-page books of R. F. Delderfield’s entertaining Swann trilogy, God Is an Englishman and Theirs Was the Kingdom. I can only read for 15 minutes or so before I fall asleep (it’s the time of day, not the books.) This well-written family saga, really about work, follows the fortunes of Adam Swann, a former soldier who comes home to England and founds a wagon haulage firm. Adam is a vigorous businessman, respected by his workers, and frankly the descriptions of his business make this worth reading. Delderfield has thoroughly researched the relationship between wagons and railroads. The second book in the trilogy is a little less muscular, more about the family, but I enjoyed it.
I don’t like to abandon a book, and rarely do. I still have 150 pages to read of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which I started in December. It is a good contemporary novel, but somehow not my kind of thing. Do I have to finish it? No, because I asked my husband how it turned out. (Joey and Connie are fine, but he is vague about what happened to the other characters, so I’ll probably have to go back. I need to record it in my BOOKs journal anyway.)
If I had one of those CURRENTLY READING lists on my sidebar, I’d be currently reading the same things for years and years and years.
I abandoned Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, which I misread as IQ84, and thought would be about a moron–only of course it has to do with alternative time and 1984. Bummer, as my old boyfriend used to say. I didn’t like it, but again everybody else did so there’s no need for me to finish it. And I really will never go back to this one.
Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall? It’s on my Nook. I read 20 pages a few years ago and wasn’t interested. And now for some reason I am. Everybody loved Wolf Hall, right? And I want to read the sequel when everybody else does…
Notice I abandon mostly modern books.