Tuesday, September 16, 2008

half read books

The following article was written for Chronicle of Higher Education. It is a great article that is engaging the whole way through, enjoy...

The Pleasure of Half-Read Books

I've stopped reading books all the way through.

This happened gradually, and I don't blame myself. I blame others.

First, I blame bookstores. The bookstore nearest to our house is named Books-A-Million, the country's third-largest retail bookseller. The intent of Books-A-Million is to overwhelm you. A million books. I become a book zombie, like Homer Simpson in a doughnut shop: I must have books. Give me books. More books. In addition, the store, like other book chains, has a cafe where you can relax with coffee and pastries that are a step up from doughnuts. You can page through books, although you can never actually sit for hours and read the whole book. I have been tempted to try, but there is only so much coffee one can consume at $3.50 a cup. In any case, I generally read enough so it doesn't seem worth spending $27.95 to read the final 259 pages.

Second, I blame the Internet. The modus operandi of most Web sites, whether online booksellers or research sites, is to tempt you with a chapter and then cut you off and demand payment. I find it difficult to whip out my credit card at those moments.

Third, I blame my wife, Barbara, who has the uncanny ability to fall asleep minutes into watching a film, wake up the second it is over, and then accurately critique it, pointing out nuances that I, who have remained awake, missed. I can't help thinking that if I fall asleep clutching a book to my chest, I will wake up knowing the book intuitively. I not only don't have to read the last half of it, I don't have to read any of it. However, it just doesn't work that way.

Fourth, I blame Books on Tape — actually, books on CD's. The nature of Books on Tape runs counter to actually reading an entire book. Books on Tape are usually abridged, which produces the psychological impression that the books should have been edited in the first place. On the other hand, is there anything in the world more daunting than a Book on Tape that hasn't been edited and runs for 27 and a half hours? Who's listening to that?

So there's lots of blame to go around.

But if you were to force me to accept responsibility for having given up on reading books to the end, I would trace my habit back to finishing my doctorate in contemporary literature years ago. I realized then that except for books that I might teach or write about, I never had to finish another book unless I wanted to. I wasn't going to be tested on any book for the rest of my life. I was no longer competing to finish self-imposed reading lists with fellow graduate students. And I already had read more books by the age of 29 than most people read in a lifetime.

But it took me a while to stop reading certain books completely. For example, colleagues had the annoying habit of publishing books that I felt obliged to finish. And when my novel, Sticks, was published (still available on Amazon, if you're interested in half a good novel), I expected them to reciprocate and finish my book.

Today I probably finish about half the books I start. Do I finish more nonfiction than fiction? More genre books, like science fiction, or more serious, literary books? How many books do I put down because I don't like them or they aren't very good? If I pay $27.95 for a book, am I more motivated to finish it than if a neighbor lends a copy to me?

One way to answer those questions is to look at the books that I have read and half-read lately.
The books that I half-read: Vineland, by Thomas Pynchon; Boom!, by Tom Brokaw; China Road, by Rob Gifford; The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth; and The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova.

The books that I finished: Against the Day, by Thomas Pynchon; Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin; The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, by Mark Haddon; The Thief at the End of the World, by Joe Jackson; and Protect and Defend, by Vince Flynn.
Obviously the odd author in this mix is Pynchon. Reading all 1,085 pages of his 2006 novel Against the Day became a quest and an obsession. Every day for months I read a few pages. No wonder that after I finished it and picked up Pynchon's 1990 novel, Vineland, which is much shorter and easier, I couldn't finish it. I had had enough of Pynchon — perhaps forever.
The other books are more conventional. Many were best sellers or recommended by friends. Some were impulse purchases. One, The Thief at the End of the World, which is about the 19th-century discovery of rubber, was written by a friend.

The two lists show some peculiarities that are not just my own. For example, I cannot read Roth. I've tried most of his books, but I can't get through them. This is obviously my problem and not the author's. But over the years, I've found that most readers have at least one author whom they simply cannot read. Bellow. Morrison. Irving. Who knows why?

Another peculiarity is book length. One might assume that long books often become half-read books. But for me, length doesn't matter. In fact, three of the four longest books on my two lists — Against the Day, Team of Rivals, and The Thief at the End of the World — are all in my finished category. The long book that I didn't finish was The Historian. I think I left a young couple in the grips of Dracula, but I didn't care.

One book in my finished category is a genre book: Vince Flynn's political thriller, Protect and Defend. The assumption is that heavily plotted novels are more likely to be finished, since readers want to know what happens next. I do occasionally finish a book to find out the ending. I am amazed by people, including my wife, who read the ending and then go back and read the whole book anyway. When I asked her about this quirk, she explained that she reads the conclusion to determine if it is worth her time to finish the book. If the ending turns out to be something that she had already figured out, she quits reading. But if it is something that she hadn't expected, she keeps reading.

Two nonfiction books are on both my half-read and finished lists. I found Goodwin's massive tome about Lincoln's cabinet unexpectedly fascinating. However, I was indifferent to Brokaw's paean to the baby boomers, despite being a boomer myself.

Finally, I hate it when someone gives me a book and tells me I'll love it. That often leads to a half-read book, such as China Road.

Nevertheless, half-read books can be pleasurable. I almost never feel that I've wasted my time or intellect just because I don't make it all the way through a book. I can still meet an interesting character or visit an unusual locale. I might discover a topic I knew nothing about. Maybe I figure out that the subject matter or plot is worth only 150 pages instead of 300. Besides, half-read books have helped me chip away at that million-book inventory at Books-A-Million.

So don't despair if you have a half-read book taking up space on your desk. Don't feel guilty about not finishing it just because you are a professor. No one cares, and you shouldn't, either. Just move it over to the bottom shelf of your bookcase and find something new. You'll feel liberated, trust me.

William McMillen is chief of staff in the office of the president at the University of Toledo.


LifestoryDVD said...

Nice article--glad you noted it
I like your take on things too.
As a babyboomer with eyesight not as strong and stamina sometimes to stay through the dull patches of many books waning--I can relate strongly. I started babyboomreview in part to revive the passion for my early reading. Anyone in that situation is very welcome to join.

schwartz said...

lifestory - Thanks a lot!
This article was eye-opening for me - it allowed me to not feel bad anymore for not finishing every book I come in contact with.