Have you seen the article going around these days about how it's so important to finish books? What do you think of it?
I had mixed feelings about it. Obviously I don't finish every book I start. As an English major, that's nigh unto impossible (although I don't think that's the situation the author was talking about). I do see what the author's saying, though. It can be really valuable to finish books, for all the reasons she's talking about.
But I think it's a bad idea, at least for me, to lock myself into a finish-every-single-book rule, for a few reasons:
1. One of the reasons the writer of the article gives for finishing books is that we ought to show respect for the author. Yes, there are some authors who deserve respect even if I don't get their writing (that's why I pushed my way through The Sound and the Fury). If you're reading an author who's widely respected as an important/classic author, then it's a good idea not to discount their work.
But I don't think every author deserves equal respect. The authors of trashy romance novels don't deserve as much respect as, say, Shakespeare. And the divide isn't always that obvious. Sometimes I might have heard good things about an author only to find that they consider some things appropriate that I don't. Or that they just aren't at the level of writing as people said they were. And if I discover that I actually don't respect them as a writer, I think it's better for me to put the book down than to keep resenting the author.
2. Juliet Lapidos says that it's our duty to research books thoroughly before picking them up to make sure we like them, so then if we don't like the book, it's our fault.
This is just silly. First of all, even if I do research a book and believe with all my heart that I'll like it, it just doesn't always happen. For example, I really didn't like Refuge, even though it was recommended to me by several people I respected, for reasons I could never have anticipated before reading the book. It just wasn't my cup of tea, and no amount of research could have told me that. (I actually did finish that book, which just made me hate it more.)
Furthermore, a lot of books I've ended up loving have just been random books I picked up off the library shelves. It would be silly of me to refuse to ever pick up a book just because I'd never heard anything about it. If I were an author, I'd rather people gave my book a chance and then put it down in the middle than that they refused even to try it no matter how interesting it looked just because they weren't positive they would want to finish it.
3. Whether I'm going to push myself to finish a book really depends on my goals. There are some books that I finish no matter what, because they're classics and I believe I'll learn something from them. I'm certainly not saying that people should never push themselves to get to the end of a book. I know a lot of people say things like, "Read whatever makes you happy, and if it doesn't make you 100% happy, put it down. Life is too short." I don't really feel that way. I think it's a mark of a good reader that we can push past the boring parts.
But at the same time, not every book I read is an important classic or really edifying. Sometimes I really do--gasp--read for fun. And who is Juliet Lapidos to tell me I'm not allowed to do that? Reading stops being fun when I force myself to finish a book I don't enjoy. No, reading doesn't always have to be fun. As an English major, I plan on spending many hours of my life reading for education and edification. But reading for entertainment is okay, too. I don't always have the same goal when I start a book.
4. Even if I really want to get through a book, sometimes it's just not the right time. I recently started reading How Green Was My Valley, got halfway through it, and finally admitted that I just wasn't jiving with the book at this time in my life. I honestly think I'll probably be able to appreciate it later in life, but right now I really don't. I think it's a lot more respectful toward the author for me to put it down for now, hold off making a judgment, and possibly come back to it someday.
Of course, I would never write a negative review of a book I didn't finish (unless I wanted to warn my friends about explicit content or something). If I'm going to criticize a book, I need to at least give it all the chances it deserves. But sometimes I think it's better, and more respectful, to keep myself from having to make a judgment. If I finish the book and I hate it, then I'll always consider myself as hating it. If I don't finish the book, then I can say, "I tried it and it wasn't for me, but maybe I just didn't get to the good part yet. I might try it again someday." Isn't that more respectful to the author than flinging the book across the room after the last page?
5. Ultimately, I think having such rules for reading is the mark of an inexperienced reader. People who love books and literature know when to stop and when to push through. You should know when you need to keep going, and when you don't, based on your own experience and your own tastes.
Juliet Lapidos seems to believe that the only people who will disagree with her are the free-wheeling, "read-whatever-you-want-and-just-have-fun" types. I'm not that kind of person, as I think anyone who reads my blog knows. I'm an English major. I'm serious about literature and I read to learn, not just to have fun. I don't expect every book to have nothing but excitement on every page. I've gotten through a lot of books I haven't liked, but was glad I finished, so I know what that experience is like.
For people who don't have a lot of experience reading serious literature (and want to get into it), maybe it's a good idea to have a rule to finish every book. But I resent the idea that I can't be trusted to make my own decisions about what books to finish. I'm capable of finishing a book without "getting bored" or "forgetting it on the subway." I don't need to put myself through horrible reading experiences just so I can say "I can get through anything." (Lapidos must have a very easy life if the hardest thing she's ever done is finishing Atonement. I'm only in my early 20s and I already have enough life experience that I don't feel the need to force myself into difficult situations just so I can remind myself later how tough I am.)
I may not be an expert on literature, but I've been through four years of reading difficult literature for classes and I think I have some idea of when it's worth it to finish a book and when it's not. I don't need Juliet Lapidos to tell me otherwise.