Friday, November 14, 2014

Is it our duty to finish books?

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.


  1. I agree with your take on it so completely that I have little else to add. It is ridiculous to take a very personal, individual activity like reading literature and fence it round with rules. (Finish your book! Read Henry James! Don't read YA, or at least make sure you feel bad about it. Don't let teens read books with dark themes! No fantasy for you--it's escapist. "Gritty"/social justice themes only. Children should not read fun fluff; they must read difficult Literature or they will never read Henry James. What is it with Henry James anyway?)

    Are we talking about reading and loving literature and expanding our horizons and exploring strange new worlds, or are we talking about a forced march to attain an arbitrary standard of mental virtue and fortitude designed by a government bureaucracy?

    All these rules around reading seem to me to be about...I don't know...telling people what to do, controlling others' thinking, just making everything into a certifiable, quantifiable thing that you can write down and make into a statistical graph. (Goodness, I did not start that sentence meaning to make them sound like Victorian social statisticians.) Why does reading have to have all these *rules,* like a nutritional pyramid chart for your mind?

    I tell you what--librarians do not tend to think like this.

    I may or may not finish a book. Most likely, the author will never know either way (heck, usually the author is dead) and thus 'respect' does not really come into it.

    I guess I did have something to add after all. :) Maybe *I* should write a blog post...

    1. Thank you, thank you for this comment! I couldn't agree with you more. Especially about the "forced march to attain an arbitrary standard of mental virtue and fortitude" and the need to make everything into some quantifiable thing. Putting a book down doesn't make someone a failure because the point of reading isn't to reach some kind of "standard." But maybe that's what our culture is teaching us--that all education is measurable and quantifiable and the entire point of it is to reach the "standards." (Yay for homeschooling...)

    2. Hey, thanks! Yay literary anarchy!

  2. The author made interesting arguments, however, I know when I cannot stomach a book any longer and must stop for sanity's sake. And I have actually thrown away a book that won the Pulitzer Prize. (I wouldn't have even left it on a subway train, in case anyone else had the idea to read it.) Bleck! But a couple books I stopped reading and then returned to finish later, which turned out to be good.

    It is ok to challenge ourselves when we want to give up, but we should know when enough is enough b/c reading should be enjoyable, too.

    1. I agree--and I like how you said we are challenging OURSELVES. We can decide when we want to take on a challenge and when it's not worth it. We shouldn't have to follow some random rule to finish every book--we know what's worth it for us.

  3. I haven't read that article, but yeesh, I so disagree. My hat is always off to you for finishing The Sound and the Fury because I couldn't. And I stopped reading a collection of Elizabeth Gaskell stories because Bad Things kept happening to nice people and I needed it to stop. I'll read something else by her instead. (I'll try Faulkner again one day too.) But not finishing a book is very rare for me -- Those are the only ones I can think of that I've abandoned in the last 10 years. I also quit Moby Dick after a couple chapters in college, because it felt like the wrong time for me to read that book -- like you said about How Green was My Valley. I do intend to try it again, possibly in 2015.

    But a rule that I HAVE to finish every book? I rebel on principle. No one gets to tell me what to read anymore -- that's been my chief delight since finishing college. They don't get to tell me how much to read either.

    I actually almost quit a book recently -- Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. I'm so glad I stuck with it, because it was a hauntingly beautiful book. But if I'd quit it, for the reasons I had for wanting to quit it, I wouldn't have felt like a flighty, bad reader.

    Okay, now I'm going to go read that article and see how much I disagree with it :-)