So I used to be the kind of person who labored through whatever he was reading, determined to reach the end. Finishing was important to me then.
Cue the cute girl who changed my point of view merely by suggesting an alternative. Cute girls are good at changing lives without really meaning to. Let’s call her…oh, I don’t know, Amelia. A fellow bibliophile, she suggested that she had no trouble putting down a book she wasn’t enjoying and declared with a whip of her radiant blonde hair, “life’s too fucking short, man.”
And dammit, I agreed.
It wasn’t just because she was cute. Or that I was drinking wine. I genuinely agreed with what she was saying. And still do. She was right. After all, wasn’t life too short to labor through a book that was annoying or boring you or not going anywhere? So I started putting books down when I stopped liking them. Not all the time. Just once in a while. And for years this practice served me well. I spared myself the stinkers and racked up far more winners than I otherwise would have.
But now I can’t stop…stopping. I have a problem.
To illustrate, I just spent five minutes walking around my house and making a list of the all the books currently in various stages of completion:
1. Giving Good Weight
3. Moby Dick
4. The United States of Arugula
5. One Hundred Years of Solitude
7. The Ugliest House in the World
8. Game of Thrones
9. The Pale King
10. Mad Men and Philosophy
11. Crazy for the Storm
12. Service Included
13. Man in the Dark
14. The Passage
15. When the Killing’s Done
16. Pillars of the Earth
17. Infinite Jest
You’re probably sitting there wondering what the hell is wrong with me. There’s a lot of books on that list. And some great ones.
What’s changed over the years, I think, is that it used to be that I stopped reading books when I stopped liking them. And that’s certainly the case of some of the victims listed above. But a good deal of the books on the list (Man in the Dark, When the Killing’s Done, Game of Thrones–just to name three) I was enjoying quite a bit and stopped reading anyway because something else caught my eye. One of the them (It), I was no less than six hundred pages into and was wholly enthralled by and it was totally owning me and I can’t even remember why I stopped reading it. It’s just sitting there on the bookshelf staring at me sadly, wondering what it did wrong and how it might re-gain my affection.
A more disturbing trend emerges when I look even closer. There’s a lot of long books on my didn’t finish list. Infinite Jest, Pillars of the Earth, It, Game of Thrones, The Passage, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Moby Dick are all of substantial length. A few are over eight hundred pages. And don’t think I can’t read long books. You’re looking at a guy who’s read some door stops. Hell, I just read Stephen King’s new book, which tops out at a cool 850 pages, in about ten days and didn’t balk at the length even once. Okay, I balked once.
So what the hell gives here? Is it my iphone? My abuse of Facebook? Having little kids? Is it this wacky, crazy fast paced world we all live in that makes it hard just to take a deep breath let alone focus long enough to finish a long book? Or is there something more sad and sinister at work?
Have I lost the will to stay the course?
That hasn’t proven true in my writing life. I regularly start and finish pieces I’m working on. Recently I wrote a 50,000 novel in a month for the hell of it.
Here’s a thought.
I hate going to sleep. Hate it. I feel like the last third of the day taunts me with a flash of thigh all day long and then when I get to it, it whizzes by in a hazy blur. The minutes are precious and deserved to be soaked up but my sponge is often full by the time I tuck in my three year old and clean up the toys. I’ve always been a guy who tries to make the most of his time. I’ve always been pretty good at that. But maybe that’s working against me here in a way I hadn’t considered. Maybe I’m sitting there two thirds of the way through One Hundred Years of Solitude for the third time and though I’m enjoying it, can’t stop entertaining the thought that there’s some slightly more fulfilling experience to be found in another book and isn’t that what I need to be reading? And not later. Oh no. Right. Fucking. Now. I need the bliss now. Much more, apparently, than I need to finish what I start. So I put it down and pick up something else and maybe I get through that and maybe I don’t.
Here’s another thought.
Maybe if looked at differently, completion in reading is overrated compared with other aspects of the practice, say, quantity, or reading with great care and attention, or reading a wide variety of texts. If one is reading widely, actively, and diversely, why is completion necessary? Or even a virtue? After all, reading is for pleasure. I’m not answering to anyone but myself. And, I feel guilt about having not finished the books, but it’s guilt that stays mostly in the abstract, and is not so much because I don’t know how the story ends. I seem to be fine with that. I’m glad to have read two thirds of Infinite Jest. I hope to finish it someday. But it doesn’t feel all that pressing. Not having finished doesn’t negate my two thirds.
Of course, I could just be trying to make myself feel better. If I was fine with all this, the post you’re reading wouldn’t exist.
Am I alone in all this?