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To Read or Not to Read

September 21, 2009
From Pratham Books

From Pratham Books

Journalist Susan Munshower writes in her article In Praise of Books Half Read:

Some folks feel the need to finish any book once started; that this is something “owed” to the author. Some also won’t walk out on a bad film because it’s been paid for, or send back a plate of pricey dog food in this week’s hot restaurant for fear of “looking bad”. But if a close personal friend didn’t write the book, take you to the cinema, or cook the meal, why care?

It got me to thinking about my own reading idiosyncracies and into which camp I belonged to.

I fall into the category of sitting through it – whether it be a bad book or movie  (though I will send back food in a restaurant which seems crazy given I worked in hospitality for many years know what happens to returned food!) It isn’t necessarily because I’ve made an investment and feel compelled to make it to the end or to get my money’s worth. It isn’t because I feel I owe the author/director. It is because I feel I owe it to myself to know … what if I missed the one brilliant moment which made the entire bad book or movie worth it.

There have been rare occasions in my life when I have begun a book and not followed through to finish it. Ian Negus’s book on Islam remains an unknown treasure. After reading the same page 23 times after my son was born, I decided (and probably rightly so) I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to tackle a discourse on the subject.

Next came In the Name of the Rose. As someone who is not a fan of descriptive narrative I closed the book, disappointed and frustrated after the pages long description of a door in the church. Who cared? It was the final straw. It was a favourite movie of my father’s in the 90’s and felt sold out by Eco who could not deliver to me the on page version (a few months later I relented and got the movie out which didn’t wallow in pages long descriptions on inanimate objects!)  Then there’s Portrait of a Young Man as an Artist. It was put down because I was lost and didn’t feel the need to try and orientate myself. Nothing in any of the characters enthused me to care about them or  continuing with their story.

With the Eco and Joyce I felt my time was too precious to waste on them. However they come (individually) recommended as favourite novels by two of the most influential men in my life at the moment. So while I don’t feel indebted to the authors, I do feel indebted to these wonderful blokes to make the time to tackle them again.

Not every book I’ve read in the past two years (since I made a pact to read and finish two books a month) is something I’ve wanted to continue on with. But have been glad for the finis hanging over my head at the end of month and for having waded through narratives which have confused or confounded me. Two of the books have been Leaning Towards Infinity and 100 Years of Solitude.

Maybe with Woolfe’s book it was the relief in the final stretch, for the narrative to finally have found its groove after jolting between the stories of three generation of women or the depth of humanity in the relationships Frances Montrose develops in her “lost days” at in the final chapters.

Then there’s Marquez, his flying carpets and multiple generations all with the same name. It was hard going – and not exactly a short book either. Once I had suspended my hold on reality and sensibility I was able to relish and enjoy the crazy “otherness” of it. The richness of the writing inspired me to turn my hand at writing some magical realism and to seek out writers such as Salman Rushdie. Alls well, that ends well, as they say.

While they say life is too short to indulge in anything “bad” – books, movies, coffee, relationships et cetera, as writers can we really afford the luxury of throwing the bad egg switch and deep sixing a book we’re just not that into.

Are you someone who preserves? Or do you discard a book if you can’t get into it? What books have you pushed aside? Have you ever gone back to try again?

Jodi Cleghorn‘s is sitting here tapping away while on holidays in the tropics, revelling in the Mercury Retrograde showcase of music on the local radio station as her son, niece and nephew play around her. You can follow Jodi’s Tweets @jodicleghorn, her Fourth Fiction Novella or her blog Writing in Black and White.
  1. September 21, 2009 1:36 am

    I gave up on 100 Years of Solitude earlier this year for just the reasons you mention, where usually I persevere with most books. I think trying to read it before sleep was a mistake. I would be half dozing and lose track of stuff. I do plan to revisit it at some point, devote proper time to reading it. I do find that these days I am more inclined to drop a book I am not enjoying though, something I would never do when younger.

  2. September 21, 2009 10:17 am

    Jodi, I don’t do it often, but I have been known to discard a book. I usually try and persevere and sometimes with time the book grows on me. ‘Love in a Time of Cholera” was one such book and I’m glad I persevered. I’ve had too many similar experiences to make me give up on a book too quickly.

    Among those I did give up on – Proust’s “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu”; Eco’s “In the Name of the Rose” and a series of essays on literature which was meant to spice up my holiday reading but which turned out to be so boring, I quit two pages of the second essay.

    I actually gave up on Dr. Zhivago fist time round, but have since read it twice. I think I was probably a shade too young to stick it out the first time. And yes, I do occasionally return to a book I’d once given up on, with mixed results. But I don’t think I’ll be going back to the Proust, much to my neighbour’s chagrin.

  3. September 21, 2009 11:21 am

    “Some also won’t walk out on a bad film because it’s been paid for,”

    This is called “throwing good money after bad”: you’ve already spent the money, and you’re not going to get it back by sitting through the rest of the movie or book. However you _will_ spend, or rather waste, extra time (and time is money). Like someone who keeps pouring money into a bad investment, telling themselves it’ll turn around, when what they’re really doing is avoiding having to admit that they made a mistake.

    Yes, there may be a chance that the last chapter or scene will redeem everything that went before– but the further into it you get, the smaller that chance becomes.

    When I was young I finished every book I started, unless drastic circumstances intervened. The first book I can remember deliberately not finishing was the first “Thomas Covenant” book by Stephen Donaldson (I don’t remember now what the title was). I hated everything about that book, and got almost all the way to the end in spite of that: not finishing it at that point was a statement.

    Nowadays, I don’t have the time or shelf space for books I don’t really enjoy. If I get more than about 1/4 – 1/3 of the way through and it hasn’t grabbed me, out it goes. So many books, so little time, and none to waste on losers.

  4. September 21, 2009 11:32 am

    I can never walk out of a film, no matter how bad it is, because I’m determined to find at least ONE redeeming feature, but I have been known to give up on books. If I find I’m reading the same sentence over and over, and giving it a break for a few days before trying again doesn’t improve the situation, then I just drop the book. No point wasting my time on something I’m not even taking in. It’s not fair on me, and it’s not really fair on the author.

  5. September 21, 2009 3:33 pm

    I don’t have the attention span to sit out a book that I don’t feel is going somewhere. Or sometimes even if I do feel like it is going somewhere, but it’s taking too long to get there, I’ll still drop it. The first book I can remember giving up on was Moby Dick. I was barely 16. It’s one of my dad’s favorite books, but I was just too young for it to capture my interest. Next came the AP English class required reading of Wuthering Heights. The language was so rich and complex and I’ve heard so many people say they loved it, but not my peers and not me at 18. Then came yet another assigned reading, this time college level. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. I didn’t have the patience to untangle Roy’s intricate web. I intend on going back to all of these books, someday. Perhaps soon. More recently, I quit reading a book by the man who I’ve called my favorite author since I was introduced to his work in high school by my older brother: Chuck Palahniuk. I struggled through his last two books, finishing them with reluctant determination. Pygmy was the final straw. I’ve realized that my attraction to his writing was just a phase and I’m ready to move on.

    However, I still have never walked out on a movie I’ve seen in the theater. Maybe I’m more particular about the movies I see in theaters. I’d rather wait to rent it if I think I might be disappointed. There is not much of an equivalent to that with books.

  6. September 22, 2009 1:14 am

    I find it hard to put down books too, and half of it is I want to work out what’s bad about it and keep writing.

    But some books are just a struggle to finish. I never finished ‘Lisey’s Story’ by Stephen King and don’t think I’ll finish ‘The Black Book’ by Orhan Pamuk anytime soon.

    Confession: one of my favourite books is one I’ve never finished. ‘Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck. Really need to finish it one day.

  7. September 22, 2009 10:14 am

    It’s very rare for me to put down a book I’ve paid for. It’s not about the money I’ve plunked down for it, but because if I bought it, it means the book is of interest to me. Why buy it if I doubt I’ll like it? Even if the book is not very good, there is usually something of interest in it for me to keep reading. On the other hand, when I check books out from the library, or a family member lends me a book, that book better capture my attention quick, or I will put it down. The reason for this is that I’m less discerning about what I borrow. If the book captures my interest for whatever reason, I’ll pick it up, but since it’s such an easy process to borrow the book, I know I’m not always going to enjoy the book, which makes it easier to put down.

    As for movies, I don’t walk out of the theater. The reason for this is because I rarely go to see movies, so if I’ve paid for it, it means I really want to see it. Rented movies (I use Netflix) are different. I rarely stop a movie and send it back unfinished because I don’t like it, but it does happen. With movies, I know what I like, so that’s what I rent. If it doesn’t live up to my standards (which are not high–I just want to be entertained for an hour and a half or so), I don’t finish it.

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