Why I Finish Books

The other morning on Twitter, I encountered fellow Rioter Greg Zimmerman passing along a link to the possibly-too-excitedly-headlined Finish That Book!. Juliet Lapidos has three even-keeled arguments for finishing books, in spite of an even more excited subhed, and it’s her third argument that matters most to me.

Lapidos titles it, “Respect,” and I don’t know if I’d get all that reverent about most books. But her point that “[t]o drop a novel after a few chapters is…to disregard what makes it a formal work of art rather than a heap of papers that reside in a desk drawer” resonated with me, prompting me to tweet that leaving a book unfinished was “like looking at half of a painting.”

Any reader will tell you that a bad ending can ruin what was previously a good book, so why can’t a good ending redeem what may have been a bad—or, more commonly, merely mediocre—one? Take, for example, a novel I have written about before, What Happened to Sophie Wilder. Rohan Maitzen recently described its opening as “a feint…setting us up for what seems like a rather clichéd example of the ‘MFA novel,'” but which was ultimately “more interesting and intellectually ambitious” on account of material that would only surface a significant way into the text. To jump ship before the ending is to miss what is unarguably the most important part of the novel—and this is true of a great many works, where threads are tied up and plots and themes resolved only toward the end.

And if you’re in a less charitable mood, there is always something to be said for letting the hate flow through you—and what better way to do so than to be able to fully, completely, and comprehensively hate an entire work, qua work? After all, the author could completely turn things around on you and it could turn out that what you hate is, in the end, spurned, good triumphs over evil, and so on and so forth. So you follow through, thinking all along that The Kreutzer Sonata is terrible and Tolstoy mad, and until you can finally confirm that yes, The Kreutzer Sonata is even worse than you suspected and Tolstoy even madder. With such an unreliable narrator, you never know, do you?

Of course, there are plenty of outs—books that aren’t meant to be read through, of course, and books that are just bad. As Lapidos admits, she doesn’t consider herself committed to a thousand pages just because she’s read a single line, and I’m not committed until I am—usually when I’ve decided to buy the book, or when it’s passed my “Kindle sample challenge” (that is, when it’s not just terribly written prose). And it may take me a long time to finish a book; Crime and Punishment may hold my current record, at something like 10 years. But I won’t say much about a book I haven’t read through, and even my decade-long dissatisfaction with the first third of Crime and Punishment didn’t give me the permission I needed as a(n amateur) critic to say, “No, I did not think much of this novel, and here’s why.”

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