On Not Finishing Books, and a Blog Worth Following

Is it ok to give up on a book you’re reading? Ian Leslie, a wonderful writer who has got a book coming next year on lying, considers this question at his wonderful blog, Marbury:

In my view the answer to this perennial question is a resounding Yes. The reason is simple: there are too many books worth reading, and too little life, to waste time on a book that isn’t satisfying.

I’m glad to say this view now has the imprimatur of the Paris Review:

There’s nothing wrong with not finishing a book. Samuel Johnson, surely one of the great readers of all time, claimed to feel guilty because he almost never read a book to the end—but still, he didn’t. Finish them, I mean. Why should you read a book just because it’s there, or (worse) because you read it yesterday? Completism is the bugbear of actual reading. There are books even by some of my favorite authors that I have never looked at and never plan to… I say, enjoy your promiscuity and keep reading new things.


Now, rather tediously, I must qualify this opinion. Of course, it’s good to persevere with a book beyond the first moments of boredom or distraction. Some books take time to tune or sink into; some have longeurs but are on the whole well worth a dose of drudgery.

There comes a point, however, in a book as in a relationship, where you just know this isn’t going to work out. That is surely the time to say, it’s not you, it’s me (or vice versa). Actually that raises an interesting question in itself: I can divide the books on which I’ve given up into those where it was the author’s fault and those where it was my fault. For my inability to read Crime and Punishment, for instance, I blame myself, not Dosty.

I used to agonize over this myself. I’ve found life once I adopted a rule once offered by a college writing teacher: Give a book 50 to 100 pages, max, if it’s not doing it for you. Life’s too short to read stuff that’s not working. This makes sense: Think of all the great books you’re going to die without having read. I don’t want to expire not having read War and Peace because I chose to suffer Gravity’s Rainbow.

Some things I toss at the first page, even the first sentence. Others I set aside after deciding to return to them later, when we’re reading for each other. One Hundred Years of Solitude: doesn’t work right now, but it will someday. (Though I did read the whole thing once.)

An even tougher question is whether to bail on a book you’re writing. Now that would be brutal, and for the same reason it’s stupid to read books you don’t like: Because life is so short.

Yours will be a bit richer, by the way, if you make Marbury a regular stop. Leslie is a former ad man/mad man who now writes about politics and behavior, and he does so with the same amiable, understated intelligence and humor he brings to the table in person, and nice insights right and left, and he wanders around nicely, but always with a sharp focus, in a way that makes me think of Andrew Sullivan, only more left and less caffeinated. He’s like an urbane mashup of Sullivan and Jonah Lehrer, two of other favorite bloggers.

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