A non-negotiable has been if I start a book, I finish it. No matter what. Of course, I have fallen short of my standard, and in some instances, I have not finished a book on the first try. It took me four separate attempts to finish A Tale of Two Cities, a book I very much enjoyed when I read it in its totality.
For many years running, I have not quit a book, primarily because I choose good books and books that I want to finish. Last week, however, I quit a book at its midpoint.
I’m not going to disclose the title, but I will say that it won a major award. The book is highly experimental, and the entire time I worked on reading the book (“worked” a key word), I felt as though I were a stupid, dumb reader. I felt as though the author were looking over my shoulder and laughing at my ineptitude as I tried to appreciate the writer’s wit and literary pyrotechnics. I would read a few pages, pause, and ask myself what I could recall. Not much. And the next day, I would recall that I read a couple of pages, I would recall my struggle of reading.
I told my wife about the book, gave her an overview, as best I could discern. She asked me, “So are you enjoying reading it?” to which I immediately answered, “no.” I thought, why am I reading this book? The answers shouted at me immediately:
- Because you need to finish it.
- It’s good for you.
- You’re not a quitter.
- What would your students think?
- What would your colleagues think? (You might be an intellectual fraud.)
- You’re a professor!
Even though I write fiction and I have a distinct aesthetic approach, I still read outside my “tastes.” It’s important to ride widely, a principle I also impart to my students. I don’t want to become too narrow. For instance, I loved reading Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories and Forty Stories. I write stories that in no way resemble his postmodern experimentations, but I still enjoy them and can appreciate his craft.
Ultimately, I decided to close up the book that had been bludgeoning me, this after having started one section over three times. I set the book on top of our living room bookcase and instead grabbed a book a friend lent me: The Issa Valley by Czeslaw Milosz.
I sat in the recliner, put my feet up, and opened the hardcover. For me, the excitement of beginning a book is unparalleled. From the first paragraph, I was amazed that what I was reading made sense. Details and images confronted me. I was being transported to another place, to another time in history. The book I quit had done none of that for me.
I thought back to my childhood, how I read to be transported to the world the writer had created. That’s what I missed, and now I was halfway across the world in another century. I felt at home.