On Not Finishing Books

As I get older I find myself a lot less patient with books that don’t keep me engaged. I’m not talking about from the first few pages, (some books, like The Scarlet Letter to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are slow to start), but books that fail to engage me once I’m about a hundred pages in. Now that I’m in my mid-forties I’ve become more sensitive to the fact that I have comparatively very little time left. In fact, like everyone else, I’ll never be able to read all of the books that I want to read, even if a new book was never published again. And just to clarify: I am speaking about novels and not non-fiction or, God forbid, scholarly books. As a student of the novel I’ve convinced myself that I need to read novels regularly and with great appetite. It is not by happy accident that I chose to specialize (a dreadful concept if ever there was one) in contemporary world literature with an emphasis on the novel. It is a strategy I adopted to specialize in something that would allow me to keep up with those authors who are currently writing today. Much of it is good, but much is also quite bad.

For years I used to feel guilty when I didn’t finish a book. I had the impression that I had somehow failed in my attempt to learn something worth knowing. I never once questioned the failure of the novel or the novelist to keep me engaged. One book that I have tried to finish many times over the years is A Man Without Qualities, Part I by Robert Musil. Coming in at just under 800 pages, the novel is required reading for anyone wishing to understand modernism and the modern European novel in particular.

Why is it required reading?

It’s certainly not required because some professor of literature has said that it is, but because of the number of writers who claim the book as highly influential to their own work. In order to gain a better understanding of those authors I place in my personal pantheon I find it essential to explore the books that influenced them. An author’s reading list can tell us more about his or her creative process than any scholarly article or biography can. The author of a book is in many ways an illusion, a puff of smoke conjured up in the reader’s imagination. The author is a persona and quite often only slightly resembles the person who physically sits down to write the words on paper. But access to a writer’s bookshelf or reading list is a magic key that unlocks a door (even if it is only one door in the mansion of the author’s imagination) into something highly personal. For example, I’ve kept the Florio translation of Montaigne’s Essays recently published by New York Review Books as Shakespeare’s Montaigne on my nightstand over the past several months. By reading this particular translation I know that I am reading the same essays in the same language that Shakespeare did. As Stephen Greenblatt writes in his introduction to that volume: “For Shakespeare—and not for Shakespeare alone but for virtually all of his English contemporaries—Montaigne was Florio’s Montaigne.” The re-publication of the Florio translation is an essential piece of the puzzle for those of us interested in Shakespeare’s intellectual drive and curiosity. Moreover, even if one is not all that interested in Shakespeare, the Florio translation of Montaigne is a key work for understanding where Shakespeare gather a substantial amount of his material. To put it simply: to get into the author’s mind we need to read those books that the author read.

But let us return to the reality of not finishing books. I have a confession amidst all of this: I have yet to read Tolstoy’s great work War and Peace. I’m afraid that if I start it at the wrong time I may not finish it. Not finishing A Man Without Qualities is one thing, but failure to finish War and Peace is something I would never be able to forgive myself for. Other books have ended up with bookmarks forgotten between some pages and replaced on a self, perhaps waiting for another time. When it comes to the classics I am careful about choosing the right time to begin; I must have enough solitary time to submerge myself into the narrative, with the minimum possibility of interruption. I now find it much easier to abandon books by contemporary authors simply because of my age. I’ve read every single novel written by Thomas Pynchon, and most of them twice, with the exception of Against the Day (published in 2006), a novel I cannot seem to finish. My bookmark rests between pages 336 and 337 of this 1085 page monster. Out of all the books I begin I do end up finishing about 90% of them. The other 20% (not including the classics I am unable to finish, because I intend to finish them at some point) probably should not have been published anyway. Still fewer, like Against the Day are just beyond my comprehension or patience at this point in my life.

One last point: Italo Calvino argues that we are perhaps never really finished with those books that mean so much to us over the course of a lifetime. Someone, I think it may have been Nabokov, once said that there is no reading, only re-reading. What did he mean by this? That books change over time just as the reader changes over time. That a novel’s meaning can never truly be exhausted. The plot may remain the same—Humbert Humbert will always shoot Clare Quilty in the endless loop of time—but our interpretation of his motivation for killing him, or who the real villain is, may change. The physical and narrative characteristics of a book do not change, but its meaning does. So, perhaps not finishing a book is not that bad after all.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to finish the last twenty or so pages of the novel currently resting on my coffee table.

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