You Don’t Have to (Finish That Book!)
If there’s one thing I hate about book culture it’s when someone gets up on their high horse and tells me that I am reading the wrong books, or reading them the wrong way, or reading them in the wrong format.
Juliet Lapidos is one such person. Writing in The Atlantic, she takes the position that you should always finish all of the books you read.
I finish every single novel I start. If I happen upon the first line of a 1,000-page novel, I of course don’t feel compelled to read to the end. But as a matter of personal policy, when I decide I’m going to read a novel, I read the whole thing.
I’ve gathered over the years that my persistence—or stubbornness, depending on your point of view—is unusual. Most people I encounter think nothing of dropping a novel halfway because they find it boring or because they can see where it’s going or because they forgot it on the subway and moved on to the next thing.
This behavior, common though it may be, seems lazy to me. Wrong, even. Once you start a book, you should finish it.
This is one of the links in tomorrow’s morning coffee posts, but after having read and thought about it today I have decided to respond directly.
Lapidos presents several arguments, none of which are compelling. For example:
First: Pleasure. When you stop short, you risk missing something incredible. I can’t count how many novels have bored me for a hundred or even two hundred pages only to later amaze me with their brilliance. Charles Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers is long and dated. I quickly grew tired of Samuel Pickwick’s adventures, which were probably funny for 19th-century readers but which I found annoyingly quaint.
I don’t wish to sound like I am criticizing her reading choices, but I don’t find boredom pleasurable. It’s boring, and I don’t see why I should spend any of my limited time on this planet reading a book that is tedious. I’ve already made that mistake too many times.
Second: Fortitude. When a book makes me antsy I sometimes think of the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment from the late 1960s, which found, in brief, that children who were able to wait longer before stuffing themselves tended to do better in school and have a healthier body mass index later in life.
Let me cut her off at the knees: People like her are why some kids grow up hating to read. She is the type of person who would hand a kid a boring or difficult book and tell them to finish it anyway, thus instilling in that kid a hatred for the experience of reading.
But since she also brought up willpower, I will point out that there is research to suggest that willpower is a finite resource. The more a person must force themselves to finish a book, the less willpower they have to use for other things.
Like, you know, work.
Third: Respect. …
To drop a novel after a few chapters is, then, to disregard what makes it a formal work of art rather than a heap of papers that reside in a desk drawer. Today, books and authors need all the help they can get; if you care about literature as an artistic endeavor and the people who create it, then you should do so fully.
Rebecca Schinsky tweeted a good response to this. Earlier today she asked: "Does music suffer when you change stations mid-song? Does food culture die when you don’t finish a meal?"
She’s not wrong.
I don’t usually pay attention to people like Lapidos, and to be honest I don’t think enough of her arguments to come up with a clever closing argument which ties this post together.
I say read however you want, whatever you want, wherever you want. And while you’re at it, please extend the same courtesy to other readers.
image by jlz