Unfinished Books

A letter-writing friend and I have been discussing the difficulty we have in not finishing a book we have started to read. We do not have an e-mail correspondence, rather it is one of the old fashion kind, where letters are written or typed, placed in a envelope, and then delivered in the mail all too many days later by the US Postal Service. We have been writing letters, truly wonderful letters, the type no one sends to you anymore, for almost three years. We have never met and I don’t imagine we ever will but we have become the best of friends. So much for speed dating.

In her last letter she writes: “But O the keenness of one’s disappointment in a book that one eagerly anticipated reading, as I did Steven Millhauser’s Dangerous Laughter—I’ve been listlessly turning each page, wrestling with the temptation to lay it aside without finishing it. (I almost never do that, but probably should.)”

It seems that lately I’ve also been doing that more often than I like. After reading Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon, most of my book reading has been downhill. It seems to me there simply isn’t any intellectual fare among the writers of literary fiction at this time. A new Roth will be published later this year and I understand the same is true for Coetzee. Ian McEwan is also working on a new novel. But this isn’t helping me now.

For example, after reading an interesting interview of Richard Ford, I decided to try once again to read his first novel, The Sportswriter. It was going along just fine during the first 100 pages and I had made note of a goodly number of provocative passages. But then it simply stopped, no doubt at the same place it stopped when I first put it down many years ago. It was going nowhere then and it wasn’t going anywhere now. I had the same experience late last year when I began reading Ford’s latest novel, The Lay of the Land. It started off well and then seemed to me to simply come to a halt in mid-stream

What was I to do? I had read a third of both books. The passages were interesting. Couldn’t I tough it out for another 200 pages. Well, I wasn’t sure I could and since I am reluctant to add material to my Commonplace Book without finishing a book, these passages remained duly noted and parked on my shelf of unfinished books.

I am sure this is not an uncommon experience. A recent (March 2007) survey of 4,000 readers in England found that almost half of the books they bought remained unfinished. Booker winner Vernon God Little was the least-finished fiction title, followed by Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Autobiographies by David Blunkett, Bill Clinton, and David Beckham led the non-fiction unfinished list.

Some of the survey respondent’s accounts of why they failed to finish a book are rather amusing. From the larger collection, I selected the following to post below:

I am so jealous of those who didn’t finish Captain Coreill’s Mandolin. I persevered through that book, which built me into a frenzy, but the ending was awful and unsatisfying I threw the book out the window. As far as I know it’s still there.

I really struggled with Captain Coreilli’s Mandolin as the start of the book is very confused and actually quite dull. However, I persevered and after about page 25 it started to make sense and I ended up enjoying it immensely.

Several runs through Proust’s A la Receherche du Temps Perdu have failed to reach the finish line….

I started reading A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth about four times but have never got past half-way, although it’s a wonderful book. At 1474 pages, it’s difficult to stick with it when other new books are tempting you.

The one book that really shouldn’t be on the unfinished list is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It’s such a beautiful and inspirational read, and it’s relatively short in comparison to the others. No excuse people—finish what you started!!

Not the least surprised The Alchemist is up there. Glad to see so many other people must have shared my personal loathing for it. It must be the shortest book up there, why else would people not have finished it? Even shy of 200 pages, it was still unexpurgated tripe.

Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is surely the most inaccessible best-selling book ever written. I suspect you could count the percentage of people who finished it on one hand!

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy, after 100 pages—too many balls, banquets, and battles!

How can someone NOT finish a book? Surely when you open a book and decide to read it you make a commitment to read it through to the end. I read every day and have NEVER NOT FINISHED A BOOK.

I actually failed to finish reading the results of the survey. How many more ridiculous things can they find to ask the good old British public about?