A couple of years ago, a woman I don’t know and I got in an online discussion about our individual book-reading policies. I said that I don’t abandon books, and she – rather fervently – told me that she thought that choice ridiculous, given how many books were out there and how little time we all have. I understand her point, and I’ve thought about it a lot as I start books that I don’t love.
Yet, still, if I start a book, I finish it, even if it takes me years to do so.*
Case in point, in college (I graduated in 1997 so you have a sense of time here.) I was supposed to read George MacDonald’s Sir Gibbie. I didn’t finish it (sorry, Dr. Ives), and I’ve carried the book with me ever since because I WILL read it.
Without wanting to sound too heavy about this, I try to give books the same grace I extend to people – it may take a while to get into a book, just as it may take a while to understand a person. Sometimes, we don’t ever really come to like a book (or another human, for that matter), but there’s always value in reading a work – especially for a writer – even if we don’t like it. We can learn things about ourselves and that book – and about writing, if that’s our work – that we will miss if we toss a book aside.
Plus, as a writer, I know that writing a book takes a great deal of work, and I want to respect that effort by my colleagues, even if their writing is not something I particularly enjoy or appreciate. Sometimes, we push through things that are less than pleasant because, well, because they are important to someone besides us.
Now, I totally get reading for pleasure, and I totally get that we all have limited time. . . so I get it if you toss a book aside because it just doesn’t grab you, but I do suggest – as does this great article from The Atlantic – that perhaps you sell yourself and the work short for the sake of pleasure alone.
Here’s another example. Again, in college, I was assigned Bleak House. Now, as much as I theoretically appreciate Dickens, he is not my favorite – too verbose, too dense in description – but I did finish that novel, and I loved it. . . especially the spontaneous combustion scene. (That’s a teaser, not a spoiler.) I found the richness of the characterizations and the setting so profound that for days after, I felt like I was wandering through crowded English shops.
I know all the arguments for abandoning a book – the desire for escape, the limited time (it’s about priorities, right? We all have 24 hours in our day.), the number of books in the world left to read – and I do get it. Really. I’m tempted, too, but I can tell you that my perseverance with a book has never disappointed in the end, even if I didn’t love the book still. . . because after all, there is more to a text (or a person – even a fictional person. See this great discussion on “likable characters” by Jennifer Weiner) than our personal preferences. We owe it to ourselves, to the writer, and to the work itself to push through. I really believe that.
And it’s okay if you don’t.
What about you? Do you abandon books? Why or why not?
*I do have one exception, and it’s the same one I apply to people. If the book is hateful to me or to other people on this planet – racist, homophobic, sexist, belittling for the sake of belittling, I put it away.