On the book unfinished

Whilst I’ve read a lot of books in my life, there are plenty more that I began in high spirits but eventually gave up on. What intrigues me is that my inability to finish is not always the fault of the book; sometimes, it has much more to do with me, as the reader. In books, as with love, maybe there are some relationships that you just can’t commit to.

on the roadIt’s certainly something I did a lot more when I was younger, and probably reached a peak when I was in my teens. This was a time when I was reading pretty much indiscriminately – picking books up and putting them down with more thought about how cool (or not) I looked, rather than being concerned with actually finishing them.  This was the sort of stuff that I felt I should be reading, because it was edgy, or to try and impress some girl (which never worked, of course, but that didn’t stop me trying). On the Road, Ulysses, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Dice Man, … I’m sure they’re all wonderful, life-changing books – just not for me. Or not then, anyway. 

But there are also times when it’s the book that is the problem. As I’ve grown older, I’ve been more confident about this, and more inclined to quit a novel if it isn’t working for me. A recent example would be Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which has been pretty much everywhere over the last 6 months. There isn’t a single ‘Best Holiday Reads’ list I’ve come across that hasn’t included it. So, I borrowed a copy from my local library, and initially I really enjoyed the quality of the writing. And yet – there was something about the main characters that just didn’t ring true…

Now, normally I’m really annoyed by people who say (about a book)  ‘I didn’t like the characters‘. Well, duh – maybe that’s the point? Maybe you’re not supposed to. And yet, with Gone Girl, I found myself irresistably thinking along similar lines. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t like the protagonists, more the fact that I didn’t believe them. Nick and Amy – their lives seemed so neatly drawn, so remote from my own, so perfect that I found myself struggling to identify with them. They seemed set within this bubble, and I was on the outside, unable to engage with them in any meaningful way.

Which no doubt says a lot more about me than it does the book. It’s sold about a gazillion copies, so I’m clearly in the minority in not liking it. And yet -when I think about it, it would be a hard book for me to finish. I could do it, if I absolutely had to, but it would be a slog, from page one to the end.

So – there’s ‘the books you start reading because you think you should’, and there’s ‘the books that you just plain don’t get on with’. But it’s the third type which I don’t finish that I find the most interesting, perhaps because it’s the most mysterious. These I would fit into the ‘right books, wrong time’ category. 

white jazzPicking up on the Joyce reference from earlier, a good example of this for me is the book Ian Rankin described as ‘the Ulysses of crime fiction’, James Ellroy’s White Jazz. Now, I am a self-confessed Ellroy nut, and this is one unfinished book on my list that I am determined to return to. All of his novels that I have read I’ve found to be engrossing, disturbing, hilarious and unique. But in being all of these things, they’re also like a very rich and complicated meal – one which you’re not capable of repeating too often because you’ll likely make yourself sick.

I came into White Jazz straight off the back of L.A. Confidential, when what I should have done was taken a breather. Read something shorter, less dense, and not so dark. Unlike UlyssesWhite Jazz is a book I’m confident I will finish. I almost feel ready now, but I’ll probably wait a little longer, until the point where I can’t bear not to read it. And then I’ll crack it open, tear it apart and suck out its insides, like a starving man with a plate of king prawns.

And that perhaps demonstrates an important point for me, as far as reading is concerned. Timing is critical, and it’s important to recognise when you’re ready for a particular book. I also crave variety, even within the confines of a genre such as crime. Sometimes, you need to come up for air, and try something different; not only does that keep the reading fresh for you, it also means you’re ready when the hardcore texts come knocking.

Leaving books unread is not something I’m proud of, but then again neither do I regret it. I think it’s part of your education as a reader, and it’s only by picking things up and putting them down that you realise what works for you, and what doesn’t. I suppose the trick is in distinguishing between the three categories I’ve described above, and adjusting your reading accordingly.

I’m certainly better now than I was. After all those years of playing around (which is exactly what you should be doing when you’re young), I’m now much more choosy about what I commit to. I’ve got a much better eye about what I think is going to work for me, something I never would have known if I hadn’t been such a magpie in my youth. Paradoxically, it seems that leaving some books unfinished – and, in doing so, learning when to cut and run – has almost certainly moulded me into the committed and life-long reader that I am today.


  1. I couldn’t get through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance either, and never regretted putting down a book that didn’t hold my interest. That said, sometimes disliking a book is enough to keep me reading because it’s useful to try and figure out why it’s not working – unless it’s a million pages.

    On the Road was a favorite once, but maybe you have to be 15 and restless to love it.

  2. Ulysses. Estimated attempts? Five. Still find it revolting. And that is the end of my relationship with Mr. Joyce! I’ve decided that books are just like people (not surprising!) – and they have the same effect. Some are ‘love at first sight’, some are ‘instant dislike’. If you feel you need to put a book down, it’s probably for a good reason.
    Best wishes

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