U is for Unfinished

Always finishing the book they started is a badge many hard-core readers (like hard-core bikies but without so much leather) love to wear with honour. Similar to those who are anti e-book because they like the way p-books smell, the ‘always finish’ crew can get a little Salem-villagey if you dare admit you closed a book part-way through with no intention of re-opening it. They say things such as ‘I never let a book defeat me’ or ‘Once I start it I have to finish it’, as if there’s some biblio-scorecard being kept somewhere.

U is for Unfinished. Yes, you tome-tallying library lovers, I ‘gave up’ on a novel.

One of my favourite university tutors (I have two), a great man, writer and reader who had the odd job of teaching us about ‘the internet and digital media’ back in 1998 when many of the class were yet to open an email account, once mentioned that the only book he couldn’t make it through was Kangaroo by DH Lawrence. As I liked and respected this tutor so much I have always had Kangaroo on a mental ‘never-to-be-read’ list, though occasionally I am struck with a sadistic urge to attempt it. I’m not sure what it will prove if I finish it. That my boredom threshold is stronger than my tutor’s was? Seems an odd thing to give a damn about. (As an aside, Kangaroo is one of the books I sometimes imply I have read when in a high-brow conversation about ‘tough’ books, so much do I trust my tutor’s views.)

A common theme across the blog this year has been that ‘life is too short’—to focus on regrets (or, as I’ve started calling them, ‘recognisable errors in  judgement’), to beat yourself up about not managing to squeeze four thousand tasks into each day, to read a bad book, to read a book you don’t want to. And so, this year, there was one book I didn’t finish. It was Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Haymann and there were two main reasons I closed it, never to be reopened: it was too long and it wasn’t interesting enough for me to forgive its length. And when I say too long I don’t just mean it needed a few paragraphs cut. I mean it was overwritten, overblown and overfull with unnecessary plot, exposition and description. It was the kind of book where I think I could have randomly skipped 10 pages and still follow the plot. But why would you want to do that? As an editor I wondered if the author even considered any of the editorial suggestions, and then I shudder at the thought that she did, and this was still the result. It was a shame as there were some lovely little details, expressions, thoughts from the narrator, but you had to find these rare gems in the jungle of words around them, and in the end, well about half-way through, I just didn’t feel it was worth it anymore and just looking at it on the bedside table gave me a heavy heart.

As I didn’t finish the novel I’m not going to sit here and bag it for three paragraphs. Take what you will from the fact that I didn’t read the whole thing, and the fact that this was a book group selection and I have never attended a book group session where passions ran so high when discussing whether the book was a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ novel. (Seriously, people brought visual aids with them to support their argument.)

The language we hard-core booklovers sometimes use fascinates me. Books ‘defeat us’, we ‘give up’, we take a break to ‘gather strength’ to go back to it, but ‘won’t succumb’ to letting it go. Sports fans are often ridiculed for comparing their games to military battles, but surely us book geeks should also be put to task for similar appropriations.  And if we’re going to play word games, why do we so rarely blame the book? Maybe the book let us down. Maybe our greater sense, imagination, reasoning or life experiences ‘beat’ the lesser merits of the book. Maybe, just maybe, life is too short to read something we’re not enjoying or being intellectually tickled by. Maybe some books should remain unfinished.