It’s Okay to Put Down the Book

Tim Parks, blogging at NYRB, writes a thought-provoking piece positing that there may be something to the idea that a reader may opt not to finish a novel when they are, in essence, quite full and satisfied — and that authors should accept and embrace this. It’s a fascinating idea considering how rarely endings of even the best novels feel satisfactory. My favorite novel, Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, ends in such a way that I bet even Stephenson thought was somewhat out of character for the book as a whole. (Though my next-favorite novel, A Tale of Two Cities, has a kick-ass, heart-wrenching, deeply-moving ending, so there you go.)
But that’s not really what I wanted to talk about here. I was more interested in how Parks introduced his topic, with the question of when it’s okay to quit a book one is in the middle of, and still consider it as having been “read.”

It seems obvious that any serious reader will have learned long ago how much time to give a book before choosing to shut it. It’s only the young, still attached to that sense of achievement inculcated by anxious parents, who hang on doggedly when there is no enjoyment. . . . One can only encourage a reader like this to learn not to attach self esteem to the mere finishing of a book, if only because the more bad books you finish, the fewer good ones you’ll have time to start.

Well, as any of the one or two long-time readers of this blog will know, this rings a bell. I am very much hung up on what I have and haven’t read, what’s important and what’s not, and what it says about me as a person considering what I’ve taken the effort to get through.

Parks doesn’t have this problem:

I start a book. I’m enjoying it thoroughly, and then the moment comes when I just know I’ve had enough. It’s not that I’ve stopped enjoying it. I’m not bored, I don’t even think it’s too long. I just have no desire to go on enjoying it. Can I say then that I’ve read it? Can I recommend it to others and speak of it as a fine book?

Now, Parks is talking about fiction here, and most of my reading is nonfiction. (I have trouble committing myself to investing in the fortunes of people who do not exist versus filling my brain with new facts, because I’m weird.) But I think the question remains relevant in both genres.

I’m thinking particularly of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, much of which I found absolutely enriching and enthralling. But there was also a point where I felt I’d had enough. I had learned an enormous amount, and then I began to feel fairly weighed down by prose later in the book that didn’t give me anything that would stay with me after I’d completed it. If I’d stopped at the point where the fatigue set in, could I have said I’d read the book, or that I’d read enough to talk about it meaningfully? I’m not sure, but I’m now open to the question.

I should say, I think some subjects of nonfiction really do lend themselves to completion on their face, like history. You’re reading it, one presumes, to find out what the hell happened during a given period.

Anyway, food for thought. Someone should write a book about it that I won’t finish.

8 thoughts on “It’s Okay to Put Down the Book”

  1. I tend to enjoy reading books non-sequentially, and I consider the ability of a writer to create a book to suit this taste, in fiction or non-fiction, to be quite a talent. This might be because I do most of my reading while riding a bus or train, and I like to sit down, read for 10 minutes or so, and like to feel I’ve read something meant to be consumed as a unit.
    History, to me, seems to be a series of little anecdotes and case studies rather than one huge ‘story’ since you can go into as much detail as you want on any time period, making ‘start’ and ‘end’ times kind of arbitrary. You can read “The Second World War” or you can read a biography of one particular person, or an account of one particular nation during the war, or even one particular day.


  2. Three books that need to be read through to the end, and where the whole point of the book is revealed:
    Up The Line – Robert Silverberg (last word)
    The Paper Men – William Golding (last word)
    The Day After Tomorrow – Allan Folsom (last two words)


  3. The list of books that I haven’t finished is quite distinguished, and I am relieved that I don’t have to feel bad about it.


  4. I get that with non-fiction, especially the non-narrative, expository kind. It’s a learning experience. I can put it down at any point, when I feel I’ve learned all I can hold for the moment, pick it up at some unspecified future date if I want, and learn more.
    With fiction, I feel like I have to read it to the end. Unless the writing is execrably bad, I won’t put it down until the end. If the writing’s fine, but the story maybe isn’t that gripping, I’ll still read to the end, even if “reading” is really “skimming, with a bit of eyes-glazing-over.” I guess it’s a matter of principle.
    Some books don’t really “end”–not just that the ending was unsatisfactory, but that it didn’t feel like an ending. Stephenson’s especially bad (good?) at this, especially in his earlier, shorter works, like Snow Crash and The DIamond Age. The pages run out, but I felt like the story wasn’t finished. I kept lookinf for more pages hiding in there. The only work of his that I’ve read that felt like it had a real ending was The Baroque Cycle, maybe because he had three huge books to build up and resolve the entire story arc without running out of paper.


  5. If I’m starting to feel annoyed by a book, I skip to the end and read the last chapter. If that can win me back, I’ll usually keep working through it.
    I was given “The Book of Joby” as a gift, since it had been compared favourably with “Good Omens”. About 3 chapters in, I realized that this was a serious “modern fantasy” retelling of the Book of Job, not a comedic one. It was also a much more faith-oriented message than the humanist one of “Good Omens”.
    I skipped to the end to see if my suspicions of the moral were correct, and when they were confirmed, I left it.


  6. Novels are like essays and editorials, meant to be read completely from beginning to end. How much of this sentiment / phenomenon is a result of AP (*) and its “style” of “reporting”? AP tells stories in reverse, allowing newspapers to cut off paragraphs and readers to stop reading when they’ve had enough. Are people becoming satisfied with seeing enough and walking away?
    The only time I see complete items anymore are Sunday inserts, full-page stories that require reading everything and have a conclusion. Those items never come from AP; they come from the NYT, the Guardian, Le Monde and other major newspapers where writing standards haven’t slipped (as much).
    (* AP = Airheaded Propaganda)


  7. left0ver1under,
    This “reverse” style of writing up stuff has nothing to do with AP or with dumbing down anything, it is an age-old recipe how to write a news report which virtually everyone adheres to. This is in contrast to features and other content which are meant as a more in depth or entertaining treatment of a subject. If you ask me, it is quite pragmatic and well-suited for its purpose.
    I’ve heard it said that this report style stems from a time when communication was urgent or unreliable and one had to make sure that important facts came through.


  8. I correct myself partially,
    according to Wikipedia, the foundation of AP took place roughly at the same time as the invention of the inverse pyramid style, so it is possible that AP were important contributers to its (worldwide) proliferation.
    It is, however, an invention of the 1850s or so, not a recent one.


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