In her article, Finish That Book!, Juliet Lapidos claims that literature suffers when we don’t finish the books we start reading. She lays out an excellent buffet of supporting evidence; that quitting a book halfway through may result in us missing something incredible; that finishing something, even if we don’t like it, makes us stronger; and that tossing a half-read book aside is just plain disrespectful to the author and the art of novel-writing itself.
And all of this may be true. I get it. Lapidos makes a compelling argument, but do we all need to commit fully to every book we start reading? Is it wrong to give up on a book? I say no.
Reading time is precious and rare.
I can’t tell you how often coworkers lament to me when I’m babbling on about books, “I wish I had time to read. Maybe someday when I retire.” Reading is viewed as an activity that only those with “spare time” can enjoy. And let’s face it, no one really has spare time anymore. The workdays are consistently getting longer, daily responsibilities are growing, and the ability to sit down and focus on any one enjoyable thing for a duration of time often seems impossible.
I typically only find myself reading when I should be focusing on other things, like the laundry, getting more than six hours of sleep, catching up on work, or working out. Reading isn’t something we have time for; it’s something we make time for. So shouldn’t we spend that precious time only reading books that are useful to us?
Lapidos addresses the issue of lost time in her article:
“The most common defense of book-dropping I hear is that because there are more good books than any one person could possibly read, it’s stupid to waste time on a dull or otherwise unsatisfactory novel. That argument makes sense if the novel is utter trash—if it’s so bad that the reader needn’t respect the author and would possibly get dumber by going forward.”
I’m one of those people who thinks it’s silly to waste time on books that are not useful to us. This has nothing to do with whether or not a novel is “good” or “utter trash” (who decides that anyway?). And I certainly don’t agree that reading “bad” books can have the potential to make us dumber. What I’m saying is that we all read for different reasons, and the “usefulness” of a book might be measured differently for all of us.
If all I’m gaining from reading a book is lost time, then that book is simply not worth reading.
Maybe we don’t all benefit from enduring “intellectual anguish.”
Lapidos claims that we are stronger because of the books we struggle through. She states, “It may be disagreeable to slog through a novel that you stopped liking after 50 pages, but it’s a sign of strength. Resisting the impulse to stop midway also teaches strength; it works out your mental-resilience muscles, wherever those may be.” True. Fine. But how many pages, and how many hours are we each willing to spend in misery?
We all quantify “time well spent” in different ways. Lapidos works as an editor, so it makes sense that building resilience to awful books is simply good practice for her career. As someone who uses reading as a way to escape from the greydom of cubicle land, I don’t view this resilience in quite the same way. I work out my “mental-resilience muscles” every time I attend a required workshop that doesn’t benefit me, or sit through an unproductive meeting.
We don’t need to read useless books to make us better at handling “intellectual anguish.” We get good enough practice just in our day to day lives.
We can always pick it up again later.
There’s no rule that states that once we set down a book, we can never pick it up again. Part of the reason I don’t feel guilty about quitting books halfway through, is that I know I have the rest of my life to read them cover to cover, if I decide to.
Six months ago, I started reading The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland. I wanted a refresher on some of the things I had learned (and since forgotten) in my college writing courses. Sixty-two pages in, I neglected that book and picked up A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.
I traded an anthology in for a comedic memoir of one man’s experiences hiking the Appalachian Trail (I realize that neither of these books are novels). Bryson’s book did not teach me about poetic forms, or inspire me to create art, or give me fodder for intelligent cocktail party discussions. All it did was entertain me and teach me a few staggering statistics about our struggling planet that I’ve since forgotten. But that was the book I needed six months ago. I needed something funny and a little sad.
A week ago, I picked up the anthology again, but now I’m reading it more passionately. I’m dog-earing pages, and researching terms. I’m more engaged this time, because I’m ready to read it. I wasn’t before, but I am now.
The point is: this book on poetic form wasn’t meaningful to me back in November, and struggling through it then wouldn’t have made me a better person, or reader. It just would’ve made me miserable. By reading the book now, I’m getting more out of it than I ever would’ve months ago. We don’t always know if the book we’re starting is the best thing for us to be reading right now… and it’s okay if it takes 62 (or 162) pages to find out.
If you find a sense of pride in finishing every book you start, then more power to you. If you can’t handle the gut-wrenching suspense that every book you set down could’ve had the potential to change your life, then by all means, finish what you start.
But if you agree with me, that time is too precious to waste on useless books, then please, don’t worry that literature is suffering at your expense. Just be proud that you’re making time to read in the first place.