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I’ve started, so I’ll finish?

Posted on Mar 5, 2021 in Bookshops, Finishing a book, James Joyce, Ulysses | 16 Comments

Certainly there was a time when I felt duty-bound to finish a book once I had started it. I am not quite sure when that stopped. Certainly I felt that way as a conscientious student doing an English degree. Once I had started something – Paradise Lost, War and Peace, all Shakespeare’s plays which I decided to read one summer – I was with it for the duration. There was another factor which was certainly in play during my twenties and on into my thirties and that was shortage of cash. I can remember long, lingering sessions in bookshops with enough money to buy one paperback, and one only. I was like a child in a sweet shop. There was much anxious dithering and at times I was almost paralysed by indecision. But in those early inpecunious days, a book was an investment, so it had to be right, and once I had bought it, I was damn well going to get my money’s worth. It is a great pleasure now – or it was until lockdown – to go into a bookshop, still my preferred way of buying a book, and know that I can afford to buy several. I still like to take my time about it.

However, I no longer feel compelled to finish a book when I’ve started it. I am older, and have less reading time left, so I don’t want to waste it on something I am not enjoying. A new book is still a treat, but I have a huge TBR pile – and some are e-books or purchases from charity shops. They didn’t cost very much and I have no compunction in tossing them aside. I used to feel that I owed it to the writer to keep reading, but now I feel the writer owes to me to hold my interest. I have to admit though that I am more likely to give a book the benefit of the doubt if I paid full price for a shiny new paperback or even a hardback. If I paid £1.99 from a charity shop I am less likely to hesitate.

So, fellow readers, are you completists, uneasy if you don’t finish what you started? Or are you like me, willing to flit from book to book. If so, how long do you give a book before deciding it’s not for you? 50 pages? Less? A chapter? Or maybe even just a few pages?

 

A confession: in spite of what I said at the beginning, in my early twenties, I failed to finish James Joyce’s Ulysses. Maybe one day . . .

16 Comments

  1. Helen
    March 5, 2021

    I’m definitely not a ‘started-so-I’ll-finish person’. I used to be one at university when the point was not so much enjoying a book as studying it and even the dreariest text had something to offer (though I draw the line at La rabouilleuse et Voyage au bout de la nuit) but now, no. Like you, I only have, with luck, so many reading years ahead of me and there are so many excellent novels to read and indeed to re-read (I’m a great fan of re-reading) that I simply can’t be bothered. If it hasn’t caught me by page 40 I know it’s not going to and into the charity bag it goes.
    Oddly, the one exception to this was Sarah Waters’ novel The Little Stranger which I re-read not because I was enjoying it but because subsequent conversations made me think I’d misunderstood i, as indeed I had. Still didn’t like it much, though:)

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      March 5, 2021

      Lovely to hear from you, Helen. This is pretty much exactly how I feel. I too am a keen re-reader and I have found that during the pandemic especially I have wanted the comfort of old friends. Yes, I feel 40 or 50 pages is about right. Rather intrigued by what you say about The Little Stranger – I thought it very clever, but didn’t love it.

      Reply
      • Helen
        March 6, 2021

        Yes, I thought it was clever and I ended up intrigued by the rich psychological stew Waters cooked up for us BUT in the end I didn’t really care about any of it. Coming out of that book, I picked up another very long novel which I almost put aside because I didn’t feel ready for another biggie. It was The Family Tree by Sairish Hussin and I’m so glad I persevered! Yes, it’s a first novel with the faults of a first novel particularly with regard to structure and pace – parts 1 & 3 are excellent, part 3 interminable – but it was a terrific read and everything which The Little Stranger just wasn’t.

        Reply
        • Christine Poulson
          March 6, 2021

          Yes, sometimes it really is worth embarking on a big novel and if it’s good, it can be a really immersive experience. I love Trollope’s political novels, a world so vividly conjured and such convincing characters, spread over six books. I haven’t heard of The Family Tree and will follow it up.

          Reply
  2. Margot Kinberg
    March 5, 2021

    I absolutely do not feel bound to finish a book, Christine. I do try, and I make a special effort if it’s a book for my book club. But if I don’t finish it, I don’t. Life is too short, and there are too many good books, to spend time on one that doesn’t engage.

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      March 5, 2021

      Exactly, Margot. I too make a special effort for my book club, and that often pays off in that when I push on, I find the book is more rewarding than I anticipated. It’s good to be out of one’s comfort zone sometimes. Having said that, there are times that I . . . well, let’s say skim a little!

      Reply
  3. Paula Bolton-Maggs
    March 5, 2021

    I still have not finished War and Peace. I’d need to have a chart with all the families and their relationships. Doing very well now with ‘A suitable Boy’ Vikram Seth, managing to keep track of all the people since I watched the series on TV. I could not finish ‘The Terror’ as it was too awful, and so cannot watch that either. I do not feel compelled to continue with ones I am not enjoying and sometimes run with two or three at once as they are mood and concentration dependent…And I could not get into Ulysses at all.

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      March 5, 2021

      There are certainly books I felt were too grim to continue with – and The Terror was pretty grim. I agree. I am writing about the Franklin expedition in my next book so felt obliged to read it. Actually, A Suitable Boy was one I started years ago and didn’t get on with – something to do with the style of writing, I think. Yes, I too often have several on the go. As for War and Peace, that deserves a whole post to itself! Talk soon?

      Reply
  4. tracybham
    March 5, 2021

    This is a very apt question for me. I am in the middle of two books I am not enjoying that much. One is a 640 page nonfiction book about racial issues in Alabama in the 1950s and 60s (Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution) and I am going to finish that one no matter what because I grew up in Birmingham at that time, the author is a woman and about my age, and also grew up in Birmingham. (And it won a Pulitzer prize.) The other one is The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox. I am 250 pages into this 700 page book and it would bug me to stop now. It is getting better but still not a book I look forward to picking up.

    I tend to finish books if I start them. There were 2 books (out of 110 that I started) that I did not finish last year and both were by authors I have enjoyed in the past. One I stopped because of torture scenes I could not get past. The other one I stopped in the middle (of a 400 page book) because I had given up on it being an enjoyable read.

    But that is rare for me. In general the books I start have enough going for them either in content or writing style or characters to keep me interested, to make me want to know how it ended. So I don’t know if I tend to pick books that are right for me or if I have an unusual tolerance to make it to the end.

    We have discussed before what is a good length for a book, and I say the ideal length is 250. So usually if a book is 250 pages, I can give it that much time out of my reading life. Lately I have been reading some books over 500 pages and I still find almost all of those worth finishing.

    My husband is always committed to a book once he starts it, even if he isn’t enjoying it. I tell him he can give up on it, but he won’t. It mystifies me. So maybe I should give up on The Meaning of Night. But what if it picks up in another 100 pages and I have missed a really good reading experience?

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      March 5, 2021

      Good to hear from you, Tracy. Yes, there are books that it’s worth persevering with, even if they are hard work. If that is the case, I read a certain amount a day and then feel free to read other things. I read Dante’s Inferno for my book group that way. But if it is a novel that is meant to entertain and it’s not entertaining me, then I feel free to call it a day. Yes, 250 pages is good for a contemporary novel, especially a crime novel, and my own invariably come out at that length. On the other hand, think of Dickens and Trollope and Jane Austen. I wouldn’t want their novels to be any shorter.

      Reply
    • Helen Hardie
      March 6, 2021

      I’m with Tracybham. I’m just not a risk taker, and if I stop midway, or before the end, who knows what I might have missed …. so almost invariably I read to the end … one book I just couldn’t get into, however, was “Lincoln in the Bardo” …. supernatural stuff I just don’t get…

      Reply
      • Christine Poulson
        March 6, 2021

        I know what you mean, but I have become quite adept at skim-reading, so do sometimes look ahead to see if it’s worth going on.

        Reply
  5. Moira@Clothes in Books
    March 10, 2021

    That’s a very good question. For many years I ALWAYS finished books I started – I would say in 30 years there was about 2 exceptions. I have now mellowed on this, though it still doesn’t happen often. Also I have become very good at skim reading, and that comes into play when I am less impressed by a book.

    Strangely, I don’t have a problem with long classics – I make a plan for reading so many pages a day, and I stick to it. (I don’t have such willpower in other areas of life) After I’ve read my allotted number of pages I can read something else. It works a treat for me.

    But in general I agree with Tracy – 250 pages is a good number, and I am a lot more inclined to give an author a free try or leeway if the book is that length.

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      March 10, 2021

      Lovely to hear from you, Moira! I do a fair bit of skim reading, too, and sometimes if I then think it’s worth reading properly, I go back and do that.

      I do exactly the same with books that I am really determined to read, such as the long books we sometimes pick for my book group: so many pages a day and then I revert to my usual diet of (mostly) crime fiction. It was how I read Dante’s Inferno recently.

      Reply
  6. Bill Selnes
    April 18, 2021

    I continue to feel guilty if I do not finish a book. The feeling does not mean I finish every book. I realize the feeling is irrational but I have come to accept it as part of my personality.

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      April 18, 2021

      I sympathise, Bill. I have a residual guilty feeling and I think it goes back to school days.

      Reply

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