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My Year of Unfinished Books

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Gretchen Lida

Staff Writer

Gretchen Lida is an essayist and an equestrian. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Brevity, The Rumpus, The Washington Independent Review of Books, and many others. She teaches composition in Illinois, lives in Wisconsin, sometimes lives on Nantucket Island and is still a Colorado Native.

It started with Richard Powers’s The Overstory. I got through the first fourth of its 500 pages. Surrounded by a man who finds his family has all died in their sleep from carbon monoxide poisoning, a child whose fall from a tree turns him into a computer genius, and a woman scientist who is kicked out of her academic life for believing that the trees are more than  growing 2x4s, I hit pause, removed it from my Scribd list, and never returned.

The same thing happened again with The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy. Wrapped in my bed, with the winter wind roaring outside I devoured the first few pages of the book, and McCarthy finding solace from his mother’s mental illness in the wings of a butterfly left me in awe. Then halfway through, I left it. Coffee stained, it still waits on my nightstand patiently waiting for me to finish the last half.

For the rest of 2019, many other books got left unfinished. My Goodreads looked like a herd of toddlers had left their plates of partially eaten vegetables in my “currently reading” feed. Farewell to the Horse: The Final Century of Our Relationship was left behind as Ulrich Raulff discussed how the horse revolutionized the Cheyenne’s dominance in the American West. Women Warriors: An Unexpected History was neglected after I heroically drove to a small town to pick up horse feed.

Other books went by the wayside too, some only after a few dozen pages. I started and restarted Pattie Smith’s Year of the Monkey three times, and tried The Water Dancer twice.  There are also many other books on this partially started list, but I am not going to mention them all because this is just getting embarrassing.

Usually, finishing books is something I pride myself on. In previous years I trudged my way through the things I loved and the things I felt lukewarm about, knowing that I would gain something along the way. So why have I become such a flaky reader?

The first explanation I can think of is that 2019 was a year of loss. I lost two grandparents, and the place that I had considered my other home shut its doors forever. I drove my grandfather to one of his last doctor’s appointments. My last conversation with my grandmother was about my dressage lesson. And as for the second home, I helped pack up and tape the boxes for the big move out.

The second is a bit more poetic, I guess. Perhaps I am learning to let go of the things that do not work for me. It isn’t that these books aren’t beautiful or useful, or that they didn’t teach me something, it was just that they weren’t the thing I needed at the moment I first cracked open their spine or downloaded them on my phone. I am learning that just like most things, the scarcity of good books is a myth, there will always be more, and if it is a thing I need to read, it will come back.

Thick and Other Essays by Tressie McMillan CottomOne even did. I had picked up Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Thick when it first came out, only to return it after getting distracted by other things. Then this fall, I returned and found myself filled with that rush that only happens when a book’s brilliance seems to vibrate the air around it. It was a book that made me, a big girl who was often told I was too much or too little, feel less alone. Its fearless truth telling left me recharged, refreshed, and awake. It made me a better teacher, a better writer, and a better reader. It articulated the nuances of race in America with unparalleled mastery. This book, I thought, was my reward for letting go, but it was also my reward for trying again.