Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Learning to Quit Books

This post was first published on www.NoDeadWhiteMen.wordpress.com on 01 September 2013.


In the true spirit of blogging, I am going to make a confession.

It will perhaps come as no surprise that I have always loved reading. I devoured all the assigned books when I was in school. I loved many of them, disliked some of them but read all of them. While my classmates bought Cliff’s Notes for Crime and Punishment, I wrapped myself in Dostoyevsky’s language. When they watched the film of Great Expectations, I sought out more of Dickens’s novels. I read anything and everything I put my hand to and never quit. Real readers don’t quit.

So, for many years now I have lived with the great shame of not having finished Gulliver’s Travels. I was sixteen when it was assigned to me and I hated it. I read Lilliput and just thought it was unbelievably dull. This, from a teenager who counted The Return of the Native among her favourite books.

Until just this year it was the only book I’d ever failed to finish. But I have a new outlook now. I was having a chat with science fiction novelist Christopher Priest this spring when he mentioned that he only reads books that he loves. When I explained my guilt-reading, he squashed the idea firmly. He said that there are a finite number of books that you can read in your lifetime so you had better be sure you enjoy the reading that you do.


Reading had previously seemed an infinite activity. So many books and all the days in the world to spend curled up with them. Suddenly, I was aware of my literary mortality. He had me calculate the number of books I could possibly read if I kept reading at my current pace and lived to eighty. He assured me you slow down as you age, so the number was optimistic. My best case scenario number is 3,000. At first glance, this seems enormous, but surely there are more than 3,000 great books that I would love.

I take Chris’s point. In fact, he’s absolutely right and I’ve quit two books since I had that conversation. But I still hear that nagging voice urging me to persevere. The conflict rages. One of the books I’m claiming to have quit is still sitting on the end table in my “to read” pile with a bookmark at page 212. I’m less than halfway through, but I still devoted hours to struggling through a book that I genuinely dislike. I should have quit at page 1. The problem is that it came highly recommended by a dear friend and excellent novelist. In over a decade, she has never steered me wrong on books, so I tell myself that I just need to give this book another thirty pages or another twenty or just one more chapter.

I tell myself that the recommendation is the problem, but that’s not true. The problem is the guilt. I don’t want to be a person who leaves books unfinished. A reading quitter. So I remind myself that I am only reading the glorious novel I am right now because I have put that other one aside.

Now, before everyone gets all up in arms about the value of reading what you don’t like, relax. I know exactly why I don’t like this book and I’ll try not to do those things in my writing. Proper, intellectual, writer-ly activity done. Now I’m moving on to great literature that I also love. I feel confident I’m learning more from that than I would from wading through another 300 pages of a story and writing that I hate.

So, I give unto you all the permission to read widely, read voraciously, read what you love, quit what you don’t like and to do it all guilt free. Count how many books you hopefully have left in your life and spend that number wisely!

Let me know in the comments section what your book number is and what’s at the top of your “must read” list!

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