In Which I Commit Literary Sacrilege and Stop Finishing Books

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I recently checked out a novel at the library — a contemporary book, just published, and getting great reviews so far. The back jacket featured blurbs by writers I’ve admired and read before, all praising the novel’s craft and comic wit. I was looking forward to reading it; I don’t read nearly enough modern fiction and am always angling to fill in the gaps of my knowledge.

So a few days ago, I started it. It has an interesting premise, very zeitgeist-y you could say, and very hip. I could admire its craft, its subversion of narrative expectations; a lot of careful thought went into the story and language, and I admired that. I read on, and I read on some more…and about halfway through, I decided I was finished with it.

And it wasn’t that this book was bad, by any means. It was deftly crafted; it was interesting. But then I put my finger on it: I just wasn’t very emotionally invested in it. It was intellectually clever and had some darkly comic moments, but I didn’t really care about any of the characters. The one character that had any real stakes in what happened in the story essentially went off-stage for a full third of the book, replaced by a motley assortment that I barely felt any attachment to. I’ve realized more and more these days that I am very old-fashioned in terms of my need to actually care about what happens next in a story. And as admirable as the novel was on many levels and as clearly talented as the writer is, I just stopped caring. Nothing personal — just that magic alchemy between a book and a reader didn’t happen here.

I usually never do this! I usually find something worth finishing a book over. There’s usually some nugget of redemption, even if it’s an object lesson on what not to do. And I take it as a point of personal pride that I finish things, come hell or high water. I commit; I stick to it; I endure. This is one of the bedrocks of my character, something my parents have taken great pains to inculcate in me. And you know, I know how hard writers work and how personal the work can be; I wanted to be respectful of the effort and care that went into the making of the story.

And yet: time is precious, and since I have a much sharper, nuanced, precise idea of what’s important to me, I realized I didn’t want to waste any more of my time or attention on things that ultimately won’t matter. I zeroed in on the object lesson, and then I stopped. I got my nugget of insight and then I got out. No one is ever going to put “She Finished Every Book She Read!” on my tombstone as a point of admiration, right?

If I were to characterize 2013 so far, I would say this was a year of many things, one of which is that I finally stopped finishing books unless I absolutely was compelled to keep reading them. I’ve also stopped finishing movies I don’t really care about, either. I stopped cleaning my plate — a much bigger deal than you’d expect, considering I grew up in a family that guilted you in the extreme for not finishing every precious morsel or rice! I’ve stopped shopping unless I have a precise need or desire for an item of clothing. I stopped feeling I have to be active on Facebook; I stopped feeling like I should go out on the weekend, and instead just go out whenever the hell I want.

2013 is a year I’ve stopped doing many things. I used to think this was so negative — the stop-doing list — but in the past few years, I’ve come around to the opposite position: I think it’s vital in a world where so much competes for your time and energy to know what you truly want to lavish your loving-attention upon and what you don’t. It’s kind of one of the blessings of adulthood, I think: you unearth all these weird little obligations you put yourself under, without even realizing it — ones you completely take for granted — and then you hold them up to the light. And if they’re not anything true or beautiful, it’s so much easier to pitch it aside, and free up that little bit of time and energy for something more tailor-made for your spirit.

What have you stopped doing this year? Please let me know in the comments below!

5 thoughts on “In Which I Commit Literary Sacrilege and Stop Finishing Books

  1. Do tell what book it was — I’m curious!

    In the past few years, I’ve also starting giving up on books. The effort should be worth it. I’m also getting better at letting myself skim through slow parts. Right now I’m reading Salman Rushdie’s memoir, which is so long (over 600 pages)! The tediousness makes sense thematically, as a representation of his years under protection, but I’m now skimming past most of the accounts of various political meetings because I don’t really need to know the details. I’m more interested in his personal stories and writing process, so I focus in on those sections.

    This year I’ve been reading more books than I’ve been averaging over the past few years. I made a goal for the year and am on track to reach that a couple months before the end of the year. But the thing I am not doing is writing about all of them on my booklog. I’ve finally realized that I just don’t have that much to say about every book, which seems to make it easier and more fun to write about the rest.

    1. Ha, I felt bad singling out the book in the post because I didn’t want to focus on it, just on the act of (non) reading…but it was Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely. Like I said, it’s well-crafted and smart and I know someone will really enjoy it, but for me, if I’m halfway through the book and just don’t feel compelled, I’m not going to force myself any longer!

      Wow, 600 pages of memoir! That is a lot of life! I am learning to skim through nonfiction as well; you realize it’s not like college, and not everything is needed to get something of value out of a book! And cheers to not feeling obligated to write about every single book you read…amazing how it affects the experience of writing about the things you really want to. It’s kind of interesting how that sense of obligation blankets over everything….

      Xo k.

      1. That other comment prompted me to return to this post and now wish I’d remembered what book you were talking about here — I started that Fiona Maazel book earlier this month and abandoned it after 80 pages! I had totally forgotten that you mentioned it. I’m so with you on that one! I couldn’t find a single character to get behind in any way.

        1. I’m so glad that I’m not the only one who felt that way about that book! There was a lot I admired about that book, but yep, I could not really care about any of the characters in the end. Why stick around, really? Once you don’t care about what happens, or aren’t interested in what will go down next….why bother? xo

  2. Thank you for this post. I don’t know why I feel so obligated to finish a book once I’ve started. Today, I committed literary sacrilege. I feel guilty but I hope I can sleep it off. Thank you.

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