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When do you give up on a book?
if you can't judge a book by it's cover, when can you judge it?
There are a few standard things that can make me — or any of us — abandon on a book. A painful cliche, for example. A godawful metaphor. If you open a book and it begins with a man squinting pensively into the dusty sunlight, you’re going to throw it at the nearest lending library. The bit in For Whom the Bell Tolls where Robert Jordan and Maria have sex and “the earth moves beneath them.” It’s so bad. Like, come on, Hemingway.
I read that book in high school and even then, I laughed out loud at that line. Of course, I had that Hemingway thing, so I kept on. But I used to be one of those people who regularly gave up on books near the end. I just wasn’t very interested in the endings. I was interested in how/why the characters went about the book. And I suspect a lot of people think about books like this.
Also, let’s be honest: very few endings fulfill the book. And many, many — way-too-many — books end like the final Lord of the Rings movie — with about a dozen obvious points where it should have ended but didn’t. Babylon did that too — that movie should have ended with Margot Robbie walking into the night. War and Peace didn’t need that whole epilogue. The last fifty pages of The Goldfinch were a slog. I have read ninety-nine percent of both of those books twice and I have never finished them.
And I felt a bit bad about it, you know? Like, you don’t want to be that guy. The guy who reads ninety-nine percent of a book. So, one day — I don’t remember what year, but I remember that it was spring — my parents wanted to go see the Pope say mass in Philadelphia and I took a whole backpack full of books that I’d never finished. And as we stood in line, waiting to see the Pope, I read all the endings. (You have to stand in line for like nine hours to get a glimpse at the Pope if he’s ever in Philadelphia).
It might just be the Catholic guilt but I feel bad, almost immoral, if I don’t finish a book. Like, I feel like it’s a sin. It weighs on you in the same way as an actual sin. You go around with it picking at the back of your skull.
And, like a sin, there is a joy in the opposite. There’s something wonderful about finishing a book. You know how it is — there’s that last line, something like isn’t it pretty to think so or this from Wuthering Heights:
I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.
And then you put the book down and look at the sky out the window and you think about everything in the whole world without actually thinking of anything in particular.
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But, of course, Wuthering Heights has an exceptional ending, even among exceptional books. That book hits you like a hurricane or something. You go around in a daze afterwards. Most books don’t end that well — most books sag after about a hundred pages. And so there has to be a point where you can give up on a book and not feel bad. There has to be a middle ground here.
Thus, we go back to the beginning of this piece — you can, I believe, give up guilt-free on a book if you can justify that abandonment. For me, this justification comes in the form of exhaustion. To show you what I mean, I’ll close with two examples of books I’ve given up on in the past few years. And two books that I don’t feel a single drop of sinfulness over leaving unfinished (as I do over say, Remembrance of Things Past or One Hundred Years of Solitude).
First, a painfully cringe narrative from a recent novel called Ohio where I put it down and said no more.
Bill lapped up the last vestiges of his whiskey and kept right on staring out over the lights of the city. Fireflies hung in the night, a vascular chandelier. He thought of all the places he’d been.
Come on. A vascular chandelier? What the hell is that? And the last vestiges?! All vestiges are, by definition, the last vestiges. No, I paid twenty-seven dollars for that book and I gave it away for free.
This obviously wasn’t the first time I rolled my eyes at the writing in Ohio. I kept reading beyond other similar fingernails-on-chalkboard sections because I wasn’t eager to admit that I’d been screwed out of twenty-seven dollars. But that passage was the point where I finally gave up. Maybe it’s a matter of taste, a lot of smart people said wonderful things about that book. That’s why I bought it.
You can argue that maybe I tried to read Ohio the wrong way. People say that all the time about Ulysses. So here’s another line where I put the book down and decided, guiltlessly, that I wouldn’t be picking it back up. This passage comes from a book called Mysteries of Pittsburgh by a writer named Michael Chabon (whom I usually like) —
I wanted to be like Arthur Lecomte, to drink, take, deny, dominate; and, with the wild friendship of Cleveland, to hold aloft the enchanted flag of summertime.
Again, come on. The enchanted flag of summertime. Really? What’s this — a perfume ad? No, I like Chabon but that was too much. I didn’t feel guilty when I tossed it into the backseat of my car (where it sat for six months until, one day, it mysteriously disappeared).
And I could be wrong about both of these books. They could turn out to be modern classics. In a hundred years, my great-grandson might hand his friend a copy of Ohio and say man, you’ve got to read this shit or however they talk then. But all that matters is that I don’t feel bad. If you tell me you gave up The Sun Also Rises after sixty pages, I’m going to look at you a bit sideways but as long as you can justify it yourself, who gives a shit? Life’s short, read the books you actually want to read.