March 19, 2012
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Why Finish Books?

Tim Parks suggests that there’s no point in finishing a book that’s not delighting us.

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. “I’m a teenager,” remarks one sad contributor to a book review website. “I read this whole book [it would be unfair to say which] from first page to last hoping it would be as good as the reviews said. It wasn’t. I enjoy reading and finish nearly all the novels I start and it was my determination never to give up that made me finish this one, but I really wish I hadn’t.” 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.

I confess: I tend to plough right through to the end unless the book is clearly awful.

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?

First, my stack is huge, but it’s not so filled with surefire delights that I can afford to drop a book I’m enjoying thoroughly. “I just have no desire to go on enjoying it” are not words you’ll hear from me. The same applied, incidentally, to food and wine; I might stop because I’ve had enough, I might stop because more than enough is too much, but I’m not going to leave the rest of the delicious cheesecake just because I’ve had a bite already.

Interestingly, though Parks is not thinking here about hypertext, his conclusion is that closure is indeed a suspect quality:

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.