Is life too short for bad books? Should we finish everything we start?

I have been pondering this question for years, I am a bit of a masochist and force myself to finish some dreadful books, such as Sarum.  In the last year however I have had a few books that I have still not finished.  Watching the English by Kate Fox started well but just became repetitive and The Beckoning Silence by Joe Simpson only managed three chapters, as well as some of the books I started reading in Spanish and ran out of steam by the middle.

The Joe Simpson book was a present and I have found it difficult to get interested as I know very little about climbing and I find the style repetitious; he starts climbing up a dangerous mountain with a friend who takes unnecessary risks, manages to climb it, then friend later dies.  As the fantastic Digested Read summed it up “The man who falls off mountains continues to lead a charmed life as the body count rises”.  Now that I have read that I don’t feel I have to finish the rest.

Anyway whilst trawling through blogs I discovered Tim Pear´s article Why Finish Books? and was hoping this would change my whole attitude to reading – instead of wasting hours of my life finishing crap books I could give up without feelings of guilt.  I was slightly perturbed by his first point however,

“But I’m not really interested in how we deal with bad books. 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.”

So I am obviously still reading like a teenager!  So bad books should be given up straight away. I liked Schopenhauer´s view,  Life is “too short for bad books” and “a few pages” should be quite enough, he claims, for “a provisional estimate of an author’s productions.”

Pears then goes on to argue that in fact we should have a new approach to reading and just finish a book whenever we feel like it even in the middle;

“All these writers it seems to me, by suggesting that beyond a certain point a book might end anywhere, legitimize the notion that the reader may choose for him or herself, without detracting anything from the experience, where to bow out (of Proust’s Recherche for example, or The Magic Mountain)…..Yet even in these novels where plot is the central pleasure on offer, the end rarely gratifies, and if we like the book and recommend it to others, it is rarely for the end. What matters is the conundrum of the plot, the forces put in play and the tensions between them.  Indeed, the best we can hope from the end of a good plot is that it not ruin what came before. I would not mind a Hamlet that stopped before the carnival of carnage in the last scene, leaving us instead to mull over all the intriguing possibilities posed by the young prince’s return to Elsinore……With novels, the endings I’m least disappointed with are those that encourage the reader to believe that the story might very easily have taken a completely different turn……  Sometimes I have experienced the fifty pages of suspense that so many writers feel condemned to close with as a stretch of psychological torture, obliging me to think of life as a machine for manufacturing pathos and tragedy, since the only endings we half-way believe in, of course, are the unhappy ones.

I also wonder if, in showing a willingness not to pursue even an excellent book to the death, a reader isn’t actually doing the writer a favour, exonerating him or her, from the near impossible task of getting out of the plot gracefully. There is a tyranny about our thrall to endings. I don’t doubt I would have a lower opinion of many of the novels I haven’t finished if I had. And finally I wonder if it isn’t perhaps time that I learned, in my own novels, to drop readers a hint or two that, from this or that moment on, they have my permission to let the book go just as and when they choose.”

So I don’t know if other readers agree with this – is Pears right, does everyone give up on rubbish books without much thought? Also even when reading good ones is reading to the end not  that vital as it is normally rubbish?  So many books, so little time.


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One response to “Is life too short for bad books? Should we finish everything we start?

  1. I always feel I ought to get to the end of a “classic”, even if I can’t stand it… Part of the reason for this is a desire to be armed with ammunition for those who did like it. But sometimes it’s a question of the author’s style that grates… Hemingway on occasion falls into this category for me, and in this case, the plotline has to be immense for me to want to continue.

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