Why is it so hard to leave a book half-read?

Having grown up as part of a relatively large Catholic family, I refuse to leave any food on my plate, such is my memory of competitively hungry siblings and the evocation of the starving children of Africa. No matter how full I am or how large the meal, I’ll tackle it with the determination and persistence of a toddler who has spotted lollipops by the supermarket checkout.

And so it is with books; I am almost pathologically unable to leave a book unfinished. I might be wading through dense paragraphs, reading and rereading sentences without gaining any inkling as to their meaning, yet I will continue to read through to the last page.

You see, I find few things more dispiriting than putting down a half-read book, never to return to it. And so I find myself half-way through Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart and struggling with the idea of giving up on it. After all, Absurdistan has been widely agreed to be a VERY GOOD BOOK. It has won awards and has been critically acclaimed. But it’s just not my cup of tea. I just don’t really GET it. Yes, it’s a funny. Yes it’s clever. But I have tried and tried, and I don’t know whether I can bring myself to finish it when I know there is such a big pile of other books on my bookshelf that I could be reading.

There is The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and A History of Loneliness by John Boyne. There’s also The Count of Monte Christo, which I’ve wanted to read for years and one of my favourite writers, HanifKureishi’s Something to Tell You.

And that is the problem for an obsessive reader – in one short lifetime there is a finite number of books that can possibly be read and to have wasted time on a lousy one is galling. Yet, for the very same reason, that book needs to be put back on the bookshelf half-finished – why waste more precious reading time on a book that is failing to entertain or inspire you?

In my reading history, there is a short and surprisingly illustrious list of books that I have not finished. Some were literary classics, others mainstream bestsellers, but all which I regretfully and with no small amount of angst, found to be unfinishable.

A few years ago (see, it doesn’t happen often!) there was The Name of the Rose by Umberto Ecco. By all accounts, it was a beautifully-written murder-mystery set in an Italian monastery, but one which I found to have so many different character names to keep track of that I lost sight of the central story. Interestingly, Ecco himself would not have been too miffed to know that his book had not been read – he was renowned as believing that unread books are just as valuable as ones that had been read, as they provide a resource for future learning.

I also struggled to finish award-winning Carpentaria by Alexis Wright, although I suspect that has more to do with my own deficiencies, rather than the book’s. I just could not connect with the story, and in struggling to do so, it felt like I was reading a text book. Most readers were abundant in their praise for the book, so it was with disappointment and reluctance that I finally gave up.

More recently, it was Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey, which, although well-loved by others, I found the story and language to be too squarely aimed at teenagers, rather than 30-something mothers of three. I probably would have loved it when I was younger, and who knows, perhaps the ending would have redeemed it for me.

And that is one of the problems with leaving a book unfinished – when you put it down, you realise you are NEVER going to know what happened. Will there be a twist at the end? Will everything be miraculously and beautifully tied up? Or it reach the dead end where you had an inkling it was headed, confirming all your doubts? Some of this information can be gleaned by skipping straight to the last page, although it is highly unlikely that you will be able to do justice to the story by doing that. And in a way, doesn’t this feel like cheating? Like you’ve started the race, skipped the middle, and sprinted over the finishing line. It is unsatisfying and almost meaningless.

English novelist David Mitchell captured my sense of regret at failing to finish a book when he said, “A half-read book is a half-finished love affair.” And when circumstances have kept me from finishing a book I have started, I would agree. One such book was The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, which I started reading at a friend’s house, but did not have time to finish. Another was The Book Thief by Markus Zusak– you can imagine my regret when the latter was recently named Dymock’s most popular book. Similarly, I panicked when I accidentally left a half-read copy of The Natural Way of Things in a hotel room while overseas, before joyously realising I could download a copy on my iPad. Crisis averted.

However, in the case of books that have confused, frustrated or bored me, I fear the relationship has become more like a stale marriage than a love affair.

It appears that there are a few books readers are most likely to leave half-finished. The Telegraph in the UK published a list of the top half-read or unread bestselling books, and a wide spectrum of books featured.  Unsurprisingly, intellectually demanding tomes Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time topped the list. In the middle of the list, sat Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James, while the books most likely to be read from cover to cover included The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and Catching Fire, a part of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series.

And so, how to cope with this great reader’s taboo – leaving a book unfinished? My plan is to close Absurdistan, put it back onto the bookshelf, and immediately choose another book that I have been looking forward to reading. I will not look back. I will not have regrets. Absurdistan will take its place on the list of widely-popular, award-winning books that have defeated me. After all, there are too many books that inspire, educate, comfort and entertain me to waste time on ones that don’t.

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