Called to account for reading defalcations

January 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

A few years ago someone said to me, ‘I must catch up on my reading.’ He was talking about reading fiction, not reading relating to a course or a job. Do people feel that an invisible reading list is handed out at birth?

Different imperatives, quite unreasoned, seem to be attached to reading. People read and review books they haven’t enjoyed. They go to the bitter end. Have they become confused between ‘Eat everything on your plate.’ and ‘Read all the words in the book.’ They may make a statement like this ‘I always finish every book I begin no matter how much I dislike it.’ Are they of a higher moral order than those of us who do not finish every book we begin?

When I was younger, it is true, that I felt a compulsion to finish books. By finishing a book, despite disliking it, I emerged the stronger for it. Is that so? You would probably be the better for doing yoga everyday even though you might not feel like doing it, but how can you be the better for reading a (bad) book that you did not enjoy?

Character building is out of context, if you read for pleasure. Why else would you read fiction? Or is there a better reason?

I took myself in hand some years ago and made it clear to myself that a book could be abandoned at any stage of reading. However, we all know that liking and disliking a book is not so clear cut. Occasionally, we feel we are deficient for not liking a book, so we read on. The book is not a bad book and we hope to like it better. Plus we have gone beyond the half way point which is sometimes beyond the point of return. We read on but we don’t enjoy the book any better, and it does not improve (or we do not improve enough to be up to it).

My decision to abandon a book is complicated by another factor. What about my reading record? Does half a book count? I must have read quite a chunk of Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood, and over half of Innocence by Penelope Fitzgerald before abandoning them. I didn’t mind so much about Cat’s Eye but I had enjoyed The Gate of Angels  and Offshore (both by Penelope Fitzgerald), and I wanted to like Innocence.

Worse still, I can’t say that I have read War and Peace. I have read all of it except a tenth. I skipped a ‘war section’, just one. I gave away that copy of War and Peace. A task awaits me; I shall have to buy another copy and read the skipped section (whichever one it is): otherwise I will never be able to say ‘I read War and Peace’—to the roomful of expectant people who will have gathered for this announcement—and my standing as a reader will never be what it might have been.

So I lay down no rule that I must read every book I begin. But I try to abandon the book early on, the first paragraph. Occasionally I make a mistake or indeed come to a section I deem that I am not up to reading. Towards the end of After Julius by Elizabeth Jane Howard, a notebook is produced, containing an account of a wartime operation that Julius undertook.

This account was about twenty pages long and I was in no mood to read it. So I skipped it, and finished the book. Then I was in a quandary; I had read the book bar twenty pages. So I hadn’t read the book. There was nothing for it but to go back and dose out that section to myself, a little like medicine—five pages a go until the course ran out. This is contrary to the spirit in which I read.

Who will I be telling that I read After Julius? Will I be attending the National Book Reading Accounting Day? No indeed. The knowledge that I have read various books will, by and large, die with me.

I have, however, noted that I read After Julius in my book-reading record. What about those books I did not finish? Should I round up all these half and three-quarter-read books? Is that the way book-reading accountancy is done?


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