I have a confession.
It is a painful one for a keen reader to make. One that has taken me years to come to terms with. One that in the distant days of my youth — when to pick up a book was to see it through to the bitter end — would have been the cause of much self-loathing.
I do not finish every book I begin.
As far as sordid confessions go, this might not seem like a big deal. I’m not quite at the Keith-Richards-once-snorted-the-ashes-of-his-cremated-father level. But it is a truth I don’t readily admit in public. When people look at my well-stocked bookshelf, they will occasionally ask whether I have in fact read everything on it. Until today, I would have proudly said “Yes — every single one. Except the Jilly Coopers. I have some self-respect.”
So why share my guilty secret with the world now? Why expose myself to the ridicule of earnest undergraduates and suburban book group members alike?
I do it in the hope that it might free others from the chains of tedious writing.
Over the past few years, I have come to realise that no-one is watching me read. There is no all-powerful literary auditor — in this world nor, I assume, in the next — checking whether I’ve perused every page and noted every plot twist. Obviously, the joke will be on me if I turn up at the Pearly Gates to find St Peter administering a pop quiz on Crime and Punishment.
As I’ve got older, I’ve realised that I don’t have the time to lavish attention on every book I pick up. If I get sick of a book these days, I simply give it up, and it’s a wonderful feeling.
I confess there is some residual guilt, like I’m wagging school or slipping empty gin bottles into my neighbour’s recycling. But what choice do I have? Sadly, I am not independently wealthy and I have to work. I have two small children who need someone to indulge their every whim. Even with much care and attention, my garden looks like something out of The Day of the Triffids, and my Twitter feed isn’t going to read itself. Faced with these increasing demands on my waking hours, something has to give, and In Search of Lost Time seems like an appropriate place to start.
As well as not having the free time I once did, I’ve also got grumpier as I’ve aged and I’m not as willing to put up with the crap I once did.
Recently, I picked up The Vintner’s Luck, which I enjoyed when it first came out twenty years ago, and I settled in, looking forward to a comfortably nostalgic read. Within a few pages, I started to get bored, and although I struggled on with it for another 150 pages, I finally gave up with only a couple of chapters to go. The writing was pretentious; the theology was confusing; I didn’t give a damn about any of the characters; and all I felt when I finally tossed it aside was a deep, abiding sense of relief.
And yet, that brief, momentary pang of guilt. I struggle to put my finger on exactly why I should feel so guilty about giving up on books. I suspect it has a lot to do with the cultural capital book reading helps you accrue. To turn to a book for your entertainment instead of scrolling mindlessly through your phone has a certain cachet so perhaps to give up on a book is somehow to admit defeat at the hands of Zuckerberg et al.
Certainly, I have seen more and more articles recently advocating the importance of reading regularly as a way of increasing your knowledge, building your vocabulary, improving your mental agility and relaxing your mind. But one thing that tends to get ignored by these sorts of listicles is the sheer pleasure of reading.
If you’re a reader, in the deepest sense of the word, you don’t really need these reasons to persuade you to pick up a book. You do so because you want to know what happens. Once you lose that impetus, what is the point? unless you approach reading the same way some people approach endurance running — to see how much Tolstoy you can take before you keel over.
Of course, as every reader will know, there are different types of abandonment. There are the books you start and realise are going to be a slog within a few pages. I would put the likes of Italo Calvino, Jacques Derrida and the Great Russians in this category. In some ways, chucking in the towel at this stage is completely understandable. It’s like signing up for a charity boxing match to support your local school only to find your opponent is Mike Tyson. Clearly, you would be mad to continue.
Then there are those books that start well and you enjoy but tend to get put to one side while you quickly rip through the latest Rainbow Rowell. You tell yourself you’re just having a short break but that break gets longer and longer. Perhaps it’s the book; perhaps it’s you. Either way, the relationship is clearly heading for the rocks, and the feeling you have when you break up lies somewhere between sadness that it’s finally over, and excitement about what else is out there, just waiting for you down at your local bookshop. Me and Don DeLillo’s Underworld have been in this situation for a long time. We’ve tried many times but I can never get past about page 230 and I just don’t think it’s going to work out.
And then there are those books that are so stunningly bad that you read them in a mood I like to describe as “rage reading”. You’re offended by how abysmal they are; how hackish the author. And abandoning the book partway is not so much an admission of defeat but the demonstration of your good sense as a reader — a symbolic flipping of the bird to Dan Brown or whoever it is, along with the publisher and global distribution network that delivered this steaming turd to your bedside table.
Regardless of your reasons for abandoning a book, the main point is to embrace it. It’s not a failing on your part; it is instead a conscious decision to take pride in.
After all, what could be more pointless: starting Moby Dick or actually finishing it?