There is, without a doubt, a stigma against not finishing books. Unread tomes on our bookshelves are often alluded to in hushed tones, guilty secrets only we know about, like that dentist visit we keep putting off. (Who would do such a thing? Not me, of course.)
Lately, I’ve had the conviction that this is nothing to be ashamed of. I have started and not gotten to the end of many a book in my time, and I will most likely do so for the rest of my life. I read a book up until the point where I decide it’s not worth its remaining hours. There is also a different sort of timing to consider. As in the realm of relationships (what is reading if not a relationship you have with a book for a period of time), sometimes you’re not at the right point in your life’s trajectory to connect with a story and appreciate it for how great it is.
As a result, there are several books that I have spent a good chunk of time with and never finished. Many of them I would recommend to anyone, but I just reached a point where my interest waned. More than that, I felt satisfied by what I’d read up until that point, like a seven-course tasting menu that fills you up by the third dish. I’m highlighting them here because they are all worth any amount of time you have to spend. Given that there are so many books in VPL’s collection, especially when you include digital subscription content, you don’t always have endless hours to read everything to completion. Nor do you necessarily want to. Don’t let that stop you from reading or listening to an audiobook of whichever work has grabbed your interest in the present moment. Seriously, don’t.
I’m sure many of you are familiar with Normal People — Rooney’s literary romance bestseller. I listened to it on audiobook and found it quietly heartbreaking, an almost ironic lack of romanticism audible in the Irish narrator’s voice. That sharply trained focus on realism and melancholy vision of high school love kept me listening the whole way through.
Before Normal People, there was Conversations with Friends. In the beginning, I was really excited about its narrative voice, which was dry, witty, and intelligent. The main character is Frances, best friend to Bobbi and aspiring professional writer. The two become entangled with older couple Melissa and Nick (a successful journalist and actor respectively). I read to about halfway, to a point in the plot where it’s clear where the relationships are headed. This is often where I leave stories like these. Once I know where we’re headed and the majority of how we’ll get there, it’s hard for me to persevere to the end. I very much enjoyed the part I read, however. As they say, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey, and this book was like a road trip filled with stimulating dialogue and gorgeously-written scenery.
I made it through a large part of this book. My Libby app says I was about 80% through the audiobook when I realized there were very few possible surprises left in this endearing queer romance novel. Books like these are all about the appeal of the characters — whether we care enough to follow them through unnecessarily fraught attempts at love. Dev and Charlie are definitely memorable and lovable characters. At the same time, Cochrun’s representation of mental illness is thoughtful and multidimensional. The formulaic nature of these kinds of romances — in this case, highlighted in the text by the reality TV show backdrop — means we always know how things are going to end. That makes it easier to move on if, like me, you seem to get your fill before the credits roll.
Ellen Hendriksen’s non-fiction book about strategies for overcoming social anxiety was recommended to me at the exact time I would appreciate it the most. A clinical psychologist by trade, Hendriksen’s tools are all based on real experiences with her clients, which lends them tangible credibility.
Making great use of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, combined with a focus on ‘self-compassion,’ her methods are easy to understand and use. I made it through a big chunk of this content, to the point where I felt I understood the central tenets of her framework. I even felt changed by the experience, but I didn’t feel like I had to keep reading.
In considering this topic, I wondered what it might mean not to know how a story truly ends. Does it mean the books I spend time with are less comforting, less able to act as an escape to a world much more beholden to logic than ours ever will be? Endings can be, after all, a source of closure we don’t always get in real life.
1,000 Books to Read Before You Die
I came across a blog post on this topic by James Mustich. In it, he makes a critical point, which is that our experience of a book (including whether we remember it and keep thinking about it for months or years to come) is different according to who we are. The ending of a narrative does not necessarily figure into these memories or thoughts at all. Or, it might be an unwelcome intrusion when the reading experience is akin to “wander[ing] at [our] own pace through the wood the words create…[We] may never want to reach a clearing.”1 Incidentally, Mustich has written 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die (from his perspective, of course). I’m sure he has happily strolled through many of them without getting to the clearings at the end, but they were no less impactful than the others.
For me, it’s enough to know that there is an ending, even if I don’t know the specifics of it, exactly. Just the fact that there is a beginning, a middle, and an end that must conform to some amount of logic is a comfort in itself.
- Mustich, James. “On Not Finishing, and Finishing, Books.” Medium, https://jamesmustich.medium.com/on-not-finishing-and-finishing-books-87d82fad768b. Accessed 20 March 2023.