Long ago when I was doing an English degree I chose an option on American Literature that involved reading a novel every week for a seminar. One week it was Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. It is a long novel – around 600 pages of densely written prose – and though I tried very hard, I didn’t quite make it to the end and came in fifty pages short. In those days, I felt obliged to finish every book that I started and those fifty pages weighed on me. I don’t feel that obligation now and that’s been the case for quite a while. If I’m not enjoying a book or it fails to grip me, I have no compunction about abandoning it. I regard it as the writer’s job to keep me reading. There is one exception: I do try to finish the books that we choose for my book group, though even there occasionally I end up skipping.
And I have to admit that sometimes persevering with a book that I am not initially enjoying does pay off. One of the great things about doing an English degree was that I read some marvellous things that I might not otherwise have read – among them, Paradise Lost, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and, yes, Moby-Dick. But these days, I read for pleasure, particularly when it comes to crime fiction, and if there isn’t something – narrative pace, or character, or the quality of the writing – to keep me reading, I am ruthless and the book goes in the bag for the charity shop.
PS. I’ve just got my copy of Moby-Dick off the shelf and to my surprise there are underlinings right up until the last ten pages. Maybe I went back and finished it.
PPS. I really didn’t finish James Joyce’s Ulysses – and I am pretty sure that I never will.
I could not resist this book cover. Stephen Spielberg, eat your heart out.