It was recently brought to my attention that I frequently say things like, “It took me three tries to get through that book” or “I hated that book the first time I read it, but I want to read it again.” I was questioned on my persistence in returning to books I’ve tried reading before or re-reading books I didn’t like the first time, and I denied it at first, but when I was faced with the evidence (video of me say these exact phrases over and over), I had to admit that it was true.
My first reaction was defensive, because these experiences do not make up the bulk of my reading and the real question being asked of me was, “Why would you do that? Why would you keep reading a book you weren’t enjoying?” I also wasn’t aware that I had this habit. It has always made perfect sense to me not to finish books that are disappointing, but I cannot remember the last book I gave up on myself.
This persistence developed naturally, so I had to ask myself, “Why?” I am extremely stubborn in most areas of my life, so I guess I shouldn’t expect differently of myself when it comes to books. I am very picky about what I read, but once I decide on a book, I am committed to the experience of reading it. And the story of that experience is interesting to me, is something I remember, and is obviously something I talk about.
There are books I started multiple times before eventually finishing, and many of them I ended up loving or, at the very least, appreciating. The Grapes of Wrath is the first book that comes to mind. Even now when I think about the first several pages, I remember endless description of dust, whether that is true of the text or not, but I’m glad that I eventually got to the heart of the story. After reading the first page of The Color Purple at least twice over the last decade, I finally read it last month, and it immediately became one of my favorite books.
My habit of re-reading books I didn’t like when I read them the first time has to do with the way my tastes have shifted since high school and college. It is interesting to me to see if my opinion of a book has changed. This has resulted in a new appreciation for J.D. Salinger whose books I never liked when I was younger, as well as a deep and meaningful relationship with Jane Austen.
There are authors I did not love immediately, including Hemingway and Murakami, but kept reading because I thought there was something for me in their work. That is what motivates my persistence more than anything: intuition that I should keep going. Because I would like to think that if that strong feeling wasn’t there, then I would put a book down without finishing it.
When my tastes shifted after college, so did my reasons for reading. My reading life is not strictly about entertainment, so sometimes I persist in finishing books or continuing with authors because I am interested in their influence, even if their work is not personally relevant to me. In that case, what I enjoy is challenging myself and trying to understand why a book has meant so much to other people.
I am not a persistent reader out of any sense of obligation that I must finish a book, but the reality is that I do finish almost every book that I start, and I keep going back to books and authors even when I have good reasons to stay away. I know that sounds miserable to a lot of readers, but I find those experiences to be a meaningful part of my reading life.