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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Sunday, June 16, 2024

'Are you going to finish that?': the choice a reader must make

What was the last book you didn’t finish? Come now: you’re not all perfect little literature angels heralding the merits of the written word. Was it a class reading? Was it a book for recreation? Did one of you little fools try and read “Finnegans Wake” on a dare? On a related note, did you survive and/or avoid hospitalization?

There’s no shame in not finishing a book. It may be something as innocuous as not having enough time in the day/week/month/year/life. After all, life is not a void of time in which to finish “Wuthering Heights,” especially during these hectic college years.

But of course, there are more selfish reasons to not finish a book. Like, you don’t like it, or you don’t agree with the author on this or that, or the concept of reading is just utterly repulsive to you. Whatever the reason, it’s valid, and even a career reader like me can succumb to the temptation of quitting prior to the finale.

Recently, I tried to read “London Fields” by Martin Amis. I had no context as to what the book would be about, but everything I had ever heard about Amis was nothing if not enticing: master craftsman, prose virtuoso, terribly compelling, yadda yadda yadda. And so I dove into what was, by all accounts, his chief achievement.

I got 50-odd pages in and stopped. Keith Talent had gotten Nicola Six’s phone number and I just couldn’t go any further with these people. I got “London Fields” from the library; it’s still sitting on my shelf, and the gold letters glow dimly when I turn on my reading lamp like a subtle mockery. I still don’t know whether I’ll pick it up again.

I can’t really say what made me put down “London Fields.” True, I found nothing redemptive in the characters—or in the meta descriptions of the characters by another character—but that wasn’t it. I was expecting the unpleasantness. It’s Amis’s trademark. And the writing was inspired, or at least had a razzle-dazzle. Nonetheless, something was amiss about Amis.

This is an odd scenario for me, since I usually finish whatever book I’m reading, even if it’s not particularly good. ‘Tis a compulsion of mine. You could say I read with a vengeance.

And speaking of which, immediately after sputtering with “London Fields,” I picked up “White Noise” by Don Delillo, which I proceeded to read with a vengeance. It’s not my usual kind of book (distinctly postmodern with a mild literary flair) but it spoke to me on multiple levels.

The first level was that I didn’t think it was very good. The dialogue was horrendous and barefacedly didactic, and any book that seeks to ensnare the zeitgeist will always fall short for me since the zeitgeist is, by definition, so damn flippant. The second level was that I just didn’t agree with the ideas presented. Besides the commentary on consumer culture, industrial pollution and the aforementioned problem of white noise i.e. ambient television and radio waves and our dependence upon them (all valid points but ultimately glossed over or simplified), “White Noise” was a book about death. Death errywhere.

Imagining the characters mewling and agonizing over death struck me as histrionic, and in a certain sense, pathetic, which may have been Delillo’s point. But it’s fair to also assume that Delillo buys into the death anxiety idea, which is shamelessly solipsistic.

So the point is I didn’t really like it. At the same time, I’m half tempted to buy my own copy someday and make it a regular read. Why exactly, if I disdain it so much? Because it struck me, fundamentally. I feel like “White Noise” is a book I would want to return to, if only to reject its premise. I would’ve never reached this conclusion had I simply given up on reading it before the end.

In the contest between Book and Reader, there’s a peculiar satisfaction which comes from finishing a book you’ve decided is no good. It gives you the whole picture, even if the whole picture is fraught with unpleasantness. And it gives you better basis for explaining what made a book unpleasant. Best of all, it gives you ammo against the zealots of bad literature—or “good” literature, it’s all relative. So if you don’t finish a book because you can’t, no hard feelings, it happens. But if you don’t finish a book because you won’t, think twice. You very well might surprise yourself.

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Are you affronted that Sean would assume you’ve ever started a book without finishing? Or do you constantly pick up books only to leave them perched open and waiting on the table for months on end? Send tales of your reading habits to sreichard@wisc.edu to discuss further.

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