Today’s article on Live to Write – Write to Live is about not finishing books. Which, as such discussion always do, reminded me that I can name all the books I haven’t finished since I was fifteen; which sounds like a harder feat than it actually is.
Because there are only three: Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and Kerouac’s Desolation Angels.
When I was fifteen, my English mistress gave out a list of great works of literature that pupils might want to try. As my mother was a librarian, accessing books had an opportunity cost but lacked even the monetary cost of reservations and requests; so I started working through the list. While I didn’t finish the list (and have since grown to place less stock in lists of essential reading), the only book on it I started but did not finish was War and Peace. While I made a solid start, the multiple names of each character added a significant burden with each new place and cast. After the third instance of attempting to unravel who was present in a scene and finding even the character-identifier that came with the edition didn’t help, I admitted defeat and took it back to the library.
My English courses at school included both Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and having enjoyed both I read (and enjoyed) Ulysses. So, at seventeen, I borrowed Finnegans Wake; and made it to page two. While at University, I developed a greater interest in surrealism and other less accessible styles. So, armed with my new, broader perspective on meta-language and imagery, I decided (correctly) seventeen was probably a little young for the extremes of linguistic experimentation. The second time, I made it to page five. I made my third attempt a couple of years ago, and gave up on page three.
Through the wonders of Goodreads, I know I started Desolation Angels on 30 October 2012 and returned it to the library unfinished. However, that only places below tenth on the list of library books I wanted to read at the start of November: I had read about 20% when the loan expired and found enough books I wanted to read more at that moment than I wanted to finish Desolation Angels; had there been fewer books I desperately wanted to read, I would have continued.
How do I know my decision to abandon a book is more a case of putting them aside indefinitely rather than actually giving them up? There used to be another book on my abandoned list: Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Shortly after I arrived at University, I borrowed it from the University library but my loan ran out before I finished it, and I filled my ticket with books I needed for my courses instead. However, after I left university, I borrowed it again and finished it.
Of the myriad of books I haven’t abandoned, I can’t call to mind any fiction that I forced myself to continue since I did my last English exam at school. Whether it is an exciting plot, a pleasant style, or a single character I feel something for, there is always something that makes me want to reach the end even if the story or execution aren’t to my taste.
Which, judging from the experience of others, makes me a very unusual reader: I neither stay in my comfort zone nor give up when a work disappoints.
However, I suspect his oddity is actually a consequence of another trait rather than evidence of any active desire to finish. My reading-for-comprehension speed is fast enough that a standard novel takes me only a few hours. When viewed as a choice between (1) giving up a book now and starting a new one and (2) finishing the book and starting a new one later today or tomorrow, the opportunity cost of finishing a book that I’m not utterly enjoying is almost nothing.
So, I might go back to Desolation Angels, or even to War and Peace, if I happen to see a copy in the library when I don’t have other books to read.
I’m even considering a fourth run at Finnegans Wake… in a few years.
Do you finish almost every book you start? If not, do you make a clean break or half-consider coming back to them again?