Must we finish books?

By not doing so, we often do ourselves and the writer a favour

Updated - January 13, 2019 09:28 am IST

Published - January 13, 2019 12:15 am IST

We are so awash in advice on how to fit in more reading into our lives, on how to stop moaning about “so much to read and so little time” and get on with reading hacks that a colleague’s dilemma took me by surprise. A voracious reader of fiction, of late she has started keeping aside some books half-read. These include the Man Booker Prize winner of 2018, Milkman, by Anna Burns. She says she is so engrossed in these books that she is assailed by the fear that she won’t find another book that she likes as much. And so, she stops reading.

The ways in which we read

My reading pace is qualitatively different. When I am enthralled, disturbed, intrigued, awed, riveted (as the case may be) while reading a book, I tend to hurry through it. I like to get to the end as soon as possible, so that I can quickly go back and reread long stretches. But her predicament — or lucky space, depending on how you see it — made me wonder if she would ever get around to finishing Milkman , whether she has absorbed enough of the story so far to make it a whole in her mind, whether a half-read novel is the best of all worlds for some readers. In other words, it begs the age-old question: Why finish books?

That is the name of an essay by Tim Parks, Italy-based novelist, translator, critic and football fan, in Where I Am Reading From: The Changing World of Books . The query is easily settled for some books, he points out, quoting Schopenhauer about life being too short for a bad book. But what about good books? He writes: “Is a good book by definition one that we did finish? Or are there occasions when we might choose to leave off a book before the end, or even halfway through, and nevertheless feel that it was good, even excellent, that we were glad we read what we read, but don’t feel the need to finish it?” Moreover, he asks us to consider whether this act of part-reading a book ethically allows us to recommend it to others.

Parks is liberal in answering these questions on behalf of the reader, but speaking as a writer is more complicated. He recalls being disappointed when a reader told him he had liked one of his books, though he hadn’t read right to the end. Picking apart his hurt, however, Park reconsiders the issue: “Might it be that, in showing a willingness not to pursue even an excellent book to the death, you are actually doing the writer a favour, exonerating him or her from the near-impossible task of getting out of the plot gracefully?”

Compulsive re-reader

For me, as a compulsive re-reader of literary fiction, the process is somewhat different, and perhaps it would startle writers like Parks yet more. I do tend to read through to the end of a book I value (enjoy would not be the right word, as the books we treasure often tend to be disorienting, calling us to reconsider what we had taken to be certitudes, and some, like Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore , even throw us half a frame out of our normal existence for a few weeks). There is, of course, always the tension in the reading process when going through a thoroughly engrossing book, wondering how on earth the writer will pull all the threads together. Sometimes, the writer does it well enough, sometimes not — and being a re-reader, when the latter eventuality obtains, I will keep going back to the book but not finishing it, so that over time the novel comes to be transformed in my mind to something it was not upon the first read. Even if the writer closes the book most satisfactorily, I will sometimes remake it in my mind variously — as I do with Carol Shields’s Unless .

At other times, in a book I have inhabited so long that its landscape feels personally felt to me, I work out different narrative sequences, almost converting into a hypertext. I have done it often with Rabindranath Tagore’s The Home and the World , going back and forth in different ways, so the story pivots at a new point. (It helps also that there are various translations, to aid this constant reassessment, not so much of the book, but my own understanding of the world around.)

Filling the spaces

Then, there is a book like Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column , epic in its narrative arc, but weighing in at only a little over 300 pages. This is the story of Laila, from her adolescent days in the 1930s in a conservative taluqdar household in Lucknow, through her awakening intellectually, politically and socially in pre-Independence India, and finally to her coming to some sort of terms with a country and family divided by Partition. Over the years, I have filled in spaces in this saga that at times I need to read just one passage to be lost in a story, dilemma, takeaway, consolation that were never there during previous readings of this classic.

So, here’s my question: Why finish books when re-reading?

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