It’s always interesting (to me, anyway) to see what passing news stories and comment articles exercise the people I follow on social media the most. On Friday, I stumbled across a number of people being very frustrated about an opinion piece in the Guardian by James Colley, about why you should stop reading a book if you don’t enjoy it, rather than putting yourself through the misery of sticking it out to the end.
So obviously, I decided to write about it. Good luck making it to the bottom of the page.
Colley’s argument runs a bit like this. There are more books written than you’ll ever successfully read in a lifetime. (There’s the added complication, not mentioned in the article, that quite a few of those books are likely to be in languages that you don’t actually speak, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.) Assuming you give everything you read a relatively good stab – a hundred pages or more – if you’re really hating it, you should quit. You would if it was a film, and you would if it was a Netflix show. You’re only taking a different attitude to a book because of the hours of time you’ve already spent on the thing, and the idea of hidden treasures still to come.
I had a little spin through the comments to see what those who had agreed – and disagreed – had put forward to justify their positions, since as you may know I’m a big fan of thinking about good ways to construct arguments. (I’m assuming that the person who seemed to imply that the ditch-the-book approach was easier than ever because of super-cheap digital downloads to their Kindle has never heard of a library, but there we are.) And Colley has a point here about the cultural cachet of a book being something that means we don’t like to be seen to be defeated, because it’s a reflection on us. A bit like my lovely music students who see their inability to like certain kinds of music as a personal failing.
However, I’d suggest that the students have a greater justification to say they dislike the music than the reader who abandons halfway through. Because musical performance exists in time, and they’ve stuck it to the end before they’ve passed judgement.
Now look, I’m not saying I’ve never stopped reading a book halfway through. In fact I can tell you what the last book was that I stopped reading. It was Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders, and it was about 2003, and after the first hundred pages so far as I can remember, the main character has had her hair cut, and that’s it. (I’m pretty sure if I revisited it now I might find out that a bit more had happened, but it was a while ago.) I have, in the meantime, read quite a few books all the way to the end that I never wish to read again. Like Ann Patchett’s ghastly Bel Canto, several Ian McEwan novels where he seems to be so profoundly uninterested in the fate of his characters that it’s hard to see why he thinks anyone else would care, some Neville Shute with a wonderful plot but written in the manner of a fifteen-year-old with no literary skills, and several recent ‘hit’ volumes in which basically nothing happens, in a way that is well-written and rather scenic, for about 350 pages.
Why I have I just told you all of that? Because they are books that were very enthusiastically reviewed by writers you have quite probably heard of, and may think are marvellous, and you might indeed be muttering at your computer screen right now at my heinous dismissal of great works of literature. Great! Happy for you to disagree. Evidently there are many people who feel differently from me about all of these books, and I’m glad of it. The point is, in every single case, I kept going, and for three reasons. Firstly: because I didn’t know how any of them were going to end, and how a thing ends hugely affects the way you view the whole. Secondly: because as with most things we start off not liking, there is a sort of in-built optimism to see if maybe it’ll get better, and if you don’t finish the book you’ll never know if your optimism was justified or not. And thirdly: because now I know, of each and every one of those books, that I don’t need to read them again. Plus, for bonus points, there were things I actually liked, or at least admired, in every single one of them.
And of course with books I love, books I find beautiful or funny or uplifting or rich and complex and wonderful, I might very much want to read them again. We don’t read books just to tick off the most we can possibly read between now and death. We read them to find out new things, and be taken to new places, and meet new people, and explore new adventures. Sometimes those adventures might feature people we dislike, or places that make us uncomfortable. Sometimes we might decide that once we’ve escaped from them, and closed the cover, we’re happy never to visit again; but on other occasions we might find something in those places and with those people which we find we value enormously, and will choose to experience again.
And anyway, if I never read to the end, how will I know whether I actually dislike the book or not? The first hundred pages is not the whole thing. Everything’s still to play for after the first hundred pages, unless it’s an Enid Blyton (in which case you’re about to find out how our heroes and heroines make their escape and rescue Uncle Quentin, so stick around) or Camus’s The Outsider, in which case I’m pretty sure you’ve already finished it. Keep reading. Listen to music you’re not sure about. Watch films you find mildly irritating. Why don’t you like them? What is it? What are the things that are causing you to squirm in your seat, to wish you had earplugs? If you can actually physically bear it (and only then – there is an opera that I’ve never got more than 45 minutes into because the sound of it makes me feel physically sick, much as I’d like to keep listening, so I draw the line at that), keep going. Because it’s not just about figuring out what you like and dislike. It’s not just about deciding whether the creator of the work is any good or not. It’s about getting to know yourself better. That, dear reader, is the thing that matters most. So keep reading You may be surprised… and you may surprise yourself.